To understand the Brexit rebellion look to the broader forces at work in parliamentby Philip Cowley / March 11, 2019 / Leave a comment
It was with some horror that I realised recently that I had been studying the way MPs vote for a quarter of a century. “Anyway,” people would say at parties once I had explained what I did, “it’s been lovely to meet you, must be off.”
One of my first bits of academic work looked at the rebellions over Maastricht, under John Major. The largest of these saw 41 Conservative MPs vote against their party whip, on the bill’s third reading. This week the government whips would give their right arms for a rebellion as small as 41.
Go forward a couple of decades, and the largest rebellion faced by David Cameron over Europe was almost exactly double that, when 81 Conservative MPs rebelled on a vote calling for an in/out referendum. It is always surprising to hear people make the claim that Cameron only agreed to hold the EU referendum for reasons of internal party management, as if they are making some profound observation. Cameron fought tooth and nail against the referendum, and only relented when the pressure from without (Ukip) and within (his own MPs) became too much. It is blindingly obvious why he held it, and why he had little choice.
Theresa May’s largest rebellion, so far at least, numbered 118, larger than any previous post-war Conservative rebellion, larger than any rebellion ever by MPs of either party over policy towards the EU/EEC/EC (delete as applicable), and in relative terms—measured as a proportion of the parliamentary party—larger even than the Labour rebellion over Iraq in 2003.
And now we have the fun and games of this week, where your guess is as good as mine. There are at least nine reasons why things are quite so tricky for both Julian Smith, the government Chief Whip, and Nick Brown, Labour’s Chief Whip.
– The growing trend, dating back decades, towards MPs being more independent. For most of the last two decades those of us who have been studying these things could note ever-increasing levels of backbench dissent. As Tom Clark said here the other day everyone knows that May’s Brexit rebellion smashed the records, yet “what’s less appreciated is how it stands on the crest of this historic wave.” It was a good…