The backbenchers are lobby fodder no longer. Instead, they hold the balance of powerby Martha Gill / July 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Not so long ago, a reader’s letter used to appear in broadsheets almost every week complaining that politicians were too obedient. They were sheep, the letter would grumble, too invested in their own careers to stand up to the party whips or speak their minds, voting through any half-baked nonsense ministers plonked in front of them. Whatever happened to those robust MPs of years past, who followed their consciences and would challenge their governments if it was the right thing to do? Bring them back!
Nobody writes that now. These days rebellions are so commonplace as to make governing nigh-on impossible. Just one week into her new parliament, Theresa May caved in to a revolt on abortion charges, meaning Northern Irish women coming to Britain will no longer have to pay. The rebelling Conservative backbenchers, backing Labour MPs, were so formidable that Philip Hammond was forced to interrupt his own speech at the despatch box to announce the u-turn—just hours earlier, the Department of Health had denied there was even a consultation on the question.
Another Tory rebellion followed hot on its heels—this time over pensions for women born in the 1950s. The insurgents have cause to hope it will work, too—with the government having buckled over axing free school meals, and visibly wobbling on school funding and the public sector pay cap. To see off an opposition day motion on public pay, ministers had to give reassurances that could prove costly, to keep their troops in line. More of this sort of thing is on the way. Tory MPs Tom Tugendhat, who has just propelled himself into the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and Bob Neill have warned they are ready to mutiny should a hard Brexit threaten the economy. Another backbencher, Heidi Allen, has called on the prime minister to “be compassionate,” and muttered with a vagueness that will infuriate the whips that her party “must change.”
It’s hard to bring malcontents of this sort into line. The chief government whip Gavin Williamson might keep a tarantula on his desk—“a perfect example of an incredibly clean, ruthless killer”—but he is fooling no one. A recent BBC docudrama paints Williamson as a ruthless figure: “I’ll fire you, then I’ll fucking castrate you, alright?” it has him warning one rebel. But this is all wrong, too. The days of the feared Malcolm Tucker-esque figure are over. In reality the only weapons in the whips’ armoury are persuasion and negotiation. And the more rebels there are, the more expensive it is to buy them off.