The post-match analysis of last night’s vote on the House of Lords Reform Bill shows the Prime Minister has a bigger rebel problem on his hands than he might have initially thought.
It is true that there is a significant hardcore within the Conservative party of rebels who happily defied the whip on the other big rebellion of this Parliament – October’s vote on holding a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. But that group only accounts for 57 per cent of last night’s rebels. The 81 in October did not simply increase by 10 to 91 last night. The table below shows that there were 39 MPs who walked through the ‘no’ lobbies who had obeyed the whip on Europe, and 29 EU rebels who voted with the Government last night.
Last night was the first rebellion in this Parliament for 24 MPs. And interestingly, of the MPs who were not rebellion virgins in the Lords vote, even the most disobedient, George Eustice, is positively submissive compared to the most rebellious MP in the Europe-only list, with only 7 black marks against his record to Mark Reckless’ 38. So those MPs who might typically be more obedient are starting to join the dark side in the whips’ eyes.
These two distinct groups of MPs who felt sufficiently incensed about one issue, but not the other, to rebel present a problem for Cameron. It is true that his party is growing more rebellious in spirit. But the rebellious spirit is spreading amongst his MPs, rather than becoming stronger and more steadfast in one group. A third distinct group of MPs rejecting party policy may well emerge when Parliament votes on gay marriage, although that will not be whipped, so it will not be a classic rebellion.
The challenge for Cameron now, if he truly does want to pull together a consensus on the way forward on Lords reform, is both to stop any more MPs joining the group of 120 rebels across those two major revolts. I argued earlier that the whipping operation on the Lords legislation was inconsistent. It cannot be conducted in the same way for a new programme motion in the autumn. There were many more MPs threatening rebellion on that issue, and the Prime Minister needs to send out a clear message from the very beginning that dissent will absolutely not be tolerated this time round if he’s serious about the motion’s success.