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The Professor Will See You Now: Keeping a list, checking it twice

Illustration: Tracy Worrall

4 min read

In an occasional series, Professor Philip Cowley offers a political science lesson for House readers. This week: keeping a list, checking it twice.

The whips share one thing with Santa Claus: they both keep lists of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. The number of MPs not likely to be getting presents is growing by the day. 

At the beginning of December, the Sunak administration suffered its first Commons defeat when 22 Conservative MPs backed Diana Johnson’s amendment on contaminated blood. It wasn’t even the largest Conservative rebellion that night. About half an hour later, 26 voted against the government over the Draft Vehicle Emissions Trading Schemes Order. 

These two groups of rebels did not overlap much, a sign of how the government is getting it from both wings of the parliamentary party. That one night alone saw almost 50 Conservative MPs defy their whip – and that’s before we start to add in the many abstentions.  

A fortnight or so before, we’d had more than 50 Labour MPs vote against their party whip over Gaza, including multiple front bench resignations.  

This article goes to press before the vote on the government’s Rwanda legislation, and while I am not foolish enough to make a prediction about what will happen, few think its passage is going to be straightforward either.  

Whenever things like this happen, there is a lot of discussion of the individual circumstances. Is it the nature of the issue? Could it have been handled differently? Perhaps a new chief whip will turn things around? Spoiler alert: they never do. There have been seven since the 2015 election and there are four former chief whips in the Cabinet, and yet back bench discipline is still poor.  

While there always are short or medium-term factors that help explain any individual rebellion – the longer in office, the harder these things get, for example – there is also a much more fundamental truth behind much of what is going on: back bench dissent is now just a fact of parliamentary life.  

MPs, of all parties and on all issues, have become increasingly willing to vote against their party line in recent years. As Philip (now Lord) Norton demonstrated convincingly decades ago, the period immediately after the Second World War saw extremely high levels of back bench cohesion, with only sporadic, and mostly ineffective, revolts. There were two parliamentary sessions in the 1950s during which not a single government MP voted against the party line.  

The plot of CP Snow’s 1964 novel Corridors of Power revolves around a minister who is brought down by back bench unrest – which consists of one MP voting against the party whip and a larger than expected number of abstentions. Those were the days. 

Things began to change in the 1970s, and the last two decades in particular have seen record-breaking rebellions: over Iraq, university tuition fees, Lords reform, and Europe. Rebellion is in part learnt behaviour, and today’s MPs have had plenty of tuition. 

Since 1970 every prime minister bar one has been defeated as a result of their own MPs defying the whip. The exception is Liz Truss, but she holds this record only in the same way that Sam Allardyce is the only unbeaten England football manager. To be fair, she did her best not to be left out, as anyone who remembers the vote over fracking will recall; the government’s victory there proved distinctly pyrrhic. 

When teaching this subject to students, I always try to get the balance right between noting the rise in back bench independence and yet at the same time impressing upon them that party still dominates. Most votes still see complete cohesion; most rebellions are small and ineffectual. The influence of the whips remains greatest on run-of-the-mill votes, on issues few know or care much about, and where MPs are happy to be guided.  

Decades ago, Jeremy Corbyn made a similar point to his whip, saying that for all his rebellions he mostly voted the party line. Yes, his whip replied, but not when it mattered.  

Further reading: P Norton, Dissension in the House of Commons 1945-1974 (1975); P Cowley, The Rebels (2005) 

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