Whose fault is it that the Tory party is so rebellious? Some think it’s the beastly backbenchers, while others argue it’s the Tory leadership. I was amused to watch a beaming Brian Binley lead David Cameron into the 1922 committee on Wednesday, given the backbencher was only recently penning an angry letter to the press about how the Prime Minister was ruining everything. There will always be people like Binley in every party, and Downing Street has made very clear that it would answer his desire for a move to the right by staying firmly in the centre ground. But are there really are so many other Conservative MPs who started out as thorns in the flesh from their first day in Parliament?
Here are the MPs who have rebelled on the EU referendum vote last year, the House of Lords Reform Bill, and the EU Budget:
Within that group of naughty MPs are some very naughty ones indeed: Philip Hollobone, for instance, has voted out of line with his party in 22 per cent of divisions since May 2010. Others, like Nadine Dorries, are extremely outspoken about the failings of the Tory leadership in the media (Nadine, of course, is an extreme example as she remains suspended from the Conservative party until a further meeting with the chief whip in the new year). Two members of this club – Stewart Jackson and Adam Holloway, who resigned as PPSs to rebel in the EU referendum vote – have gone in the space of a year from being ministerial aides to hardcore rebels. Others were considered ministerial material back in 2010: Nick de Bois, Tracey Crouch, Zac Goldsmith and Steve Baker being some of those names.
But that hardcore list doesn’t tell the full story. There’s now a net of rebellion that spreads across the party where certain MPs have rebelled on key issues such as Lords reform, but kept their powder dry on Europe. They aren’t coalescing around one central problem: instead, there are many problems. The gay marriage vote won’t be whipped, but it is creating another group of MPs opposed to government policy.
When I volunteered as a classroom assistant at university, one of the things I quickly learned was that a good primary school teacher isn’t always the sweetest one with the laissez-faire attitude. The best ones were endlessly ticking the children off about little misdemeanours, setting clear boundaries before their behaviour developed into something more challenging. This hasn’t been happening in the Conservative party, and it has created a party of little tykes.
It’s not just about telling people off: as well as repeated grumbles about the government failing to be sufficiently Conservative, one thing that backbenchers often say to me is they are rarely followed up by the whips or the party HQ. One – and not a rebellious one at that – told me he’d had no response to his decision to criticise a government policy in the press. ‘A call from a whip to check I was OK would have been nice,’ he told me. Backbenchers seem to be left to their own devices: another one complained to me that it would be nice to be taken for coffee by a whip once in a while just to check how things were going. It would work both ways: the leadership would know what was coming down the road in terms of issues worrying MPs, and the MPs would feel loved. When a rebellion looms, though, the whips go into overdrive and export would-be rebels straight to Downing Street or the Treasury.
The problem now is that each side is blaming the other: if you’re in Downing Street, it’s because the party is naughty, and if you’re an MP, it’s because the leadership doesn’t care about you. Unless someone blinks first, it doesn’t look like the stand-off between leadership and rebels is going to go away any time soon.