"It becomes more tempting to challenge your leader if you are in good company"by Meg Russell / May 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
Meg Russell will speak at Prospect’s upcoming 2017 election debate on Tuesday, 6th June.
Read more: A strange rebirth of Tory England?
Many assume that a sharp increase in the number of Conservative MPs on 8th June will give the Prime Minister far greater power to govern unimpeded. Indeed, the hope of an enhanced personal mandate is what inspired Theresa May’s snap election. The traditional expectation in Britain is, after all, that a government with a comfortable Commons majority can push through more or less whatever policy it pleases. As she made her surprise statement, May stressed the need to unite Westminster behind her. So will this strategy work? Not necessarily.
The old textbook description of power in British politics was always questionable, and is now positively outdated. With a parliamentary system and no written constitution, we may lack “checks and balances” in the strict American sense; but there are many constraints on a PM, and they are increasing. The governing party is one. A small Commons majority leaves ministers vulnerable to rebellion from a handful of, perhaps extreme, backbench MPs. But a small majority also concentrates the minds of loyalists, making it difficult to step out of line. It was during Tony Blair’s landslide years that rebellion on the Labour side took off. In a pattern familiar from psychology, larger groups will always tend to splinter into smaller subgroups. Within parliament, it becomes more tempting to challenge your leader if you are in good company, and rebellion will not do too much immediate harm.
Despite the Conservatives’ iron discipline in triggering Article 50 (Ken Clarke was the lone rebel), they remain disunited on the implementation of Brexit, and much else. May might become less constrained by a few fringe MPs, a big majority could embolden many more backbenchers to assert themselves. They will return from campaigns—in diverse seats, where views on Europe diverge—and often publicly stated views on the form that Brexit should take. There could also be lively debates on issues like grammar schools. So don’t assume that—even in the Commons—the leader gets all she wants.
The Lords is a different and interesting place, where the Tories have had a tricky time adjusting to relative weakness. During David Cameron’s first term, the Coalition secured him the support of most Lib Dem peers, but in 2015 he became the…