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UK Parliament – How does the Government Organise its majority – Rebellions

It might seem that the Whips have a strong hold over backbench MP and that there are plenty of ways for party dissent to be headed off, but actually votes against the party line, and especially against the Government, have become more and more common in recent decades.

John Major’s Government, with its small majority, was almost brought down by the rebellion of Conservative MPs against the extension of European integration in the Maastricht Treaty. In the first two session of the 2001 Parliament there were more rebellions than in any session since the war.

The rebellion of Labour MPs on the declaration of war against Iraq in 2003 was the biggest rebellion of Government MPs since the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.

The 2010 Parliament was even more rebellious. Between May 2010 and November 2011 there were 396 divisions and in 177 of these Coalition MPs rebelled.  This includes every Liberal Democrat MP who was not a Minister.

The Coalition was not seriously damaged because most rebellions only involve a handful of MPs and because Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs rebelled on quite different issues and not together (Syria was an exception).

Normally new MPs are more cautious but the rebellion was greater among the 2010 Conservative intake perhaps because Conservative constituency associations were choosing more Eurosceptic candidates or because the choice of more varied candidates meant that they felt less beholden to the leadership.

Professor Philip Cowley, the expert on rebellions, says that like family rows the immediate cause is rarely the real reason and many Conservative MPs do did not trust the leadership with its compromises with the Liberal Democrats and the Coalition arrangements means that there are less Ministerial posts to go round.  Nevertheless there is obviously a longer term trend towards independence among MPs. The Cameron Government, elected in 2015, had rebellions on European issues and on tax credits, the latter forcing a change in policy. Theresa May from 2016 had major rebellions on her Withdraw Agreement from the EU which three times failed to get through Parliament.

Philip Cowley’s books The Rebels and Rebels and Rebellions provide the best coverage of the subject and he has a website