When a quarter of the parliamentary Conservative party rebels, everyone sits up and takes notice. On 24 October, 2011, 81 Conservative MPs defied a three-line whip to vote in favour of an EU referendum: cue a blaze of negative publicity for David Cameron and the Tory party whips.
But a week or so later one-quarter of Lib Dem MPs rebelled, and (almost) no one noticed. In nine separate votes on 1 and 2 November, a total of 14 Lib Dem MPs voted against various aspects of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. The largest single rebellion saw 10 Lib Dem MPs vote to extend legal aid in complex cases. Exclude those in government, and as a proportion of the party’s backbench MPs, 14 rebels constitute a whopping 40%.
There have now been 86 Liberal Democrat rebellions so far this Parliament. In one session we’ve had more than twice as many Liberal Democrat rebellions as in the whole of the last Parliament. That’s a rebellion rate of 22%. Government is proving noticeably harder to handle than opposition – just as the Conservatives have also discovered.
Perhaps most worrying of all, however, for the party whips is the way the habit of rebellion has now spread. Almost everyone on the Liberal Democrat backbench has either abstained or voted against their party line (and most have done both).
The Legal Aid rebellions saw both Tom Brake and Simon Hughes finally break their ducks (Hughes had already abstained on tuition fees in December 2010). Of those who have been on the backbenches the entire parliament, the only Lib Dem who has not cast a single rebellious vote against the whip is Lorely Burt, although even she abstained on tuition fees last December.
Following the most recent rebellions, there is in fact now only one Liberal Democrat backbench MP whose voting has remained wholly loyal to the Coalition. His name is David Laws.
* Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart are at the Centre for British Politics at the University of Nottingham. They run www.revolts.co.uk, which analyses the voting behaviour of British MPs.