Opinion: What the Tory backbench rebellion means for parliament

Failing to get reform of the House of Lords through the Commons shows a parliamentary asymmetry. There are enough Tory backbenchers to defeat the government, but not enough Liberal Democrat backbenchers to do so. One party’s backbenchers have de facto veto power, but the other’s do not.

There are three responses to this constitutional oddity.

The first is to say “so be it”: parliament and democracy have quirks. Perhaps it is even democratically appropriate for backbenchers from the larger party have powers not enjoyed by those from the smaller party.

The second response is that the asymmetry makes it is incumbent on the Conservative leadership to prevent rebellions. The PM could have said that no rebel would become a minister so long as he was PM. He could have announced that the entire Tory ministerial team would resign, as a matter of honour, if Tory backbenchers voted against part of the coalition agreement. The prospect of Nick Clegg as acting PM would surely have scared Tories MPs to vote for something they did not like. Instead the rebels felt that rebelling would help their career, not hinder it.

Finally we have what may be the Liberal Democrat leadership position: if the Conservatives allow their backbenchers to veto part of the coalition agreement, then the Liberal Democrat ministerial team will vote against the boundary changes, and not resign their positions. If Cameron sacks them, he brings down the government, and causes an election that he would be likely to lose. Knowing this, the measure would surely be pulled in advance. This likely outcome is not perfect, however, as Tory ministers will question why they in turn should vote for items they dislike.

Three lessons stand out. Firstly, leaderships have to take their members with them. The Liberal Democrat post-election special conference meant that pretty much everyone endorsed the strategy. The Tories should have done likewise. That would have made it easier for the PM to face down the rebels.

Second, coalition agreements cannot contain things that are impossible for the parties at large to swallow. In retrospect House of Lords reform and student fees should have been put to one side, whatever the merits of either.

Third, we may need “mixed bills”: in this case the interweaving of House of Lords reform and new boundaries. Conservative backbenchers would still have a unique ability to vote down a bill, but this approach avoids the possibility of ministers voting against government bills without resigning their positions.

Coalitions create new challenges, and the need for new approaches. We all have to live and learn…

* Tim Leunig is Chief Economist at CentreForum. He served as an advisor to the Barker Review on Land Use, and is a former Inside Housing columnist.

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  • Malcolm Todd 7th Aug '12 - 2:39pm

    @JBT – you repeatedly argue, probably correctly, that the British public are not terribly interested in things like Lords reform and tinkering with parliamentary boundaries; now you are pushing (in every thread where you can shoehorn it in, if I may say so!) your British General poster comparing the Tories voting for an AV referendum (I presume that’s the “their bit” you’re talking about?) with soldiers fighting on the Western Front. You don’t think the British public will be (a) bemused and/or (b) contemptuous of this comparison?

  • Peter Davies 7th Aug '12 - 2:48pm

    A right-wing Tory backbench rebellion can be defeated if the Labour party puts its principles ahead of tactical advantage. Unlikely, I know, but not a mathematical impossibility.

  • Malcolm Todd 7th Aug '12 - 2:54pm

    Dave Page — fair point. I may be guilty of clutching at damp straws.

  • Peter Watson 7th Aug '12 - 2:59pm

    “Third, we may need “mixed bills”: in this case the interweaving of House of Lords reform and new boundaries. Conservative backbenchers would still have a unique ability to vote down a bill, but this approach avoids the possibility of ministers voting against government bills without resigning their positions.”
    Surely this is one of the things that got us into the current mess. We mixed the AV referendum in with boundary reform which meant our MPs had to defend both together. This led to them making statements about boundary reform which embarrassingly contradict their positions today.
    Whilst I can see the attraction in bundling things into a single bill to make them all or nothing for coalition partners, it feels like a messy approach. I would rather see simpler single-topic bills presented, maybe using the debating and voting timetable to ensure a bit of quid pro quo support.

  • It is quite apparent that Westminster is incapable of the reforms needed to bring it into the 20th century. In democratic terms it now lags badly behind such modern european democracies as Estonia!

    It is now clear now that the only way to bring about liberal democratic reform in our nation is through supporting a yes vote in the 2014 referendum. Willie Rennie’s flimsy unionist claim that the party can be the “guarantors of change” lies in tattered shreds after this. The English tories will now feel strong enough to rebel on social issues such as gay marriage too. Independence is more clearly than ever the surest way to bring about the liberal society we want.

    Scottish independence will set Scotland free to be the modern european liberal democracy it deserves to be. It will also be good for England. Labour will eventually realise that proportional representation and lords reform will be strongly in its own interests in the rump English-led state.

  • @Al

    So its ‘I’m alright Jack’, then?

    And I wish you nationalists would stop using the term ‘rump state’ to describe the other two countries in this union. It sounds like something I’d ask for medium-rare with ketchup…


    Any resultant exposure to negative campaigning is not important. Failure to block the boundary changes would have done just as much if not more damage to our credibility in 2015. As I said elsewhere, block it and we’re petulant, roll over and we’re spineless.

    That said, I do support Clegg’s apparent stance of leaving the boundary changes on life support pending some Tory concession. If they come back to the table on the referendum 2015 option, or give us something equally good for the country like a reasonable settlement on political party funding and donations (long shot I know), then by all means we should resume them.

  • Tony Dawson 7th Aug '12 - 7:16pm

    “He could have announced that the entire Tory ministerial team would resign, as a matter of honour, if Tory backbenchers voted against part of the coalition agreement”

    About as likely as they are to all freefall parachute from the top of the Shard. 🙁

    We are talking about Tories here. Pursuit of and retention of power is the absolute No 1priority. All other issues come third or lower.

  • Peter Watson 7th Aug '12 - 7:56pm

    @Tony Dawson
    In case the next sentence gives the wrong impression I must begin by stating my admiration for the Lib Dem MPs who honoured their pre-election pledge and voted against the rise in tuition fees.
    They broke the coalition agreement – more explicitly and earlier than any of the tories who rebelled over Lords reform. I believe the Lib Dem rebels acted with integrity and deserve more respect than any of their colleagues.
    As hard as it is for me to say this 😉 why cannot we extend the same courtesy to the tories who voted with their conscience against a bill with which they disagreed.

  • I have wondered about the asymmetry Tim Leunig writes about and wondered whether there is a possibility that the Lib Dems withdraw all but two or three MPs from government positions in order hat Lib Dem MPs are unshackled by cabinet solidarity. The effect would be to move towards ‘confidence and supply’ without pulling out of the coalition. Minsters would then have to work harder to put their arguments across.

    Jedi, unless their is another expenses scandal, the issue of whether their should be fewer MPs and still less whether the constituency boundaries should be radically changed will be insignificant in 2015. On the other hand in some of the redrawn constituencies there would be significant resentment. Jedi, you shoehorn in this (wonkish) point of view at every opportunity. Allow me to put mine: the bottom line for the Liberal Democrats must be that Parliament should not be rendered even less equitably democratically representative at the end of the parliament than it was at the start.

  • Mark Argent 7th Aug '12 - 11:23pm

    I’m uneasy with the idea of mixed bills — it is too easy for them to be constructed as if a problem is expected, which has the nasty habit of precipitating the feared problem. It also makes for confused legislation.

    Maybe the answer is for Lib Dems in the coalition to behave with dignity and judgement — conveying to the nation as a whole that our role is to enable a workable government to happen. In passing, being seen as more dignified than our coalition partners does us no harm — and is what I saw in Nick’s statement on Lords reform.

    Crucially dignified co-operation with a coalition party with whom we have disagreements enables the coalition still to work — which is in the national interest — and avoids us being accused of duplicity if the next election also produces a hung parliament and we either enter a coalition with Labour, or have to choose between Labour and Conservatives as partners in a new coalition.

  • Bill le Breton 8th Aug '12 - 8:24am

    Tim, you make an important point when drawing attention to the structure of the present Parliament.

    This we cannot change. But we can change the operational structure of the Coalition.

    Our considerable experience of operating balanced councils – thirty years worth – is relevant to Parliaments, as those who had first to deal with this situation in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly found.

    Certain ways of operating in institutions in which no single ‘element’ has overall control work to the advantage of a very large group dealing with a small group, others work best for a group of a similar size to ‘the rest’ and others work extremely well for the smallest group.

    We chose and continue to support operational conventions that favour the larger to the disadvantage of the smaller.

    We need to change the way the Coalition’s decision taking mechanism works.

    That is actually what the rebels achieved in this case. They forced Cameron to concede that it was more important for him to pander to them than to his *partners*.

    The actions of the rebel Tories gave us the pretext to withdraw support for the present mechanism and negotiate an alternative.

    Imposing the ‘penalty’ of removing LD support for a boundary review is not sufficient. Cameron has calculated that he may just have his cake and eat it in the long run.

    Changing the mechanics is doubly important for dealing with/changing economic policy, which becomes more important with each passing day.

  • T-J.. pepper sauce surely, just as Clegg gave to Cameron. Well done Clegg. I only see one credible future PM on either of the front benches, and he isn’t called Ed!

  • Toby Fenwick 9th Aug '12 - 11:24am

    Tim, hi

    All sound stuff, but for one point. If Cameron were to sack all of the LibDem ministers, he actually wouldn’t precipitate an election – under the fixed terms Parliament Act, he’d need to have a two-thirds majority of the Commons to vote in favour of an early poll.

    So what would actually happen if Cameron tried to break the Coalition is that either (i) the Tories would try and govern as a minority or (ii) that there would be a vote of no-confidence in the Government and this would trigger a 14 day period in which another Coalition could be formed. Only if this failed would there be another election.


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