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 line. I wish I had written it, and I intend to lift it and use it repeatedly. But there are also other forces at play here, some which relate to European policy in general, others to Brexit specifically.
– The nature of the European issue, for MPs. There is a significant minority of MPs, mostly on the Conservative side, for whom Europe has a quasi-religious quality. It’s not just a policy, it’s the policy. As the Bloomberg journalist Rob Hutton remarked recently, for most politicians it’s more important to win than to be pure, whereas “May’s problem is that she’s dealing with people for whom it’s more important to be pure than to win.” This makes them unwilling to compromise.
– The nature of the European issue, for the government. The need for any deal to be agreed with an external actor as well as with parliament means that this is what is known by game theorists as a two-level game. It is therefore next to impossible for the government to employ the give-and-take with which it would normally negotiate with unhappy MPs. This makes it harder to compromise, even if you want to.
– The effect of the referendum. It is rare for MPs to know the views of their constituents on issues they are voting on. Here, however, the signal is pretty clear. Some MPs are lucky enough to find their own views, the views of their party, and that of their constituents aligning. Many are not so lucky, and on such a high salience issue it is an uncomfortable place to be. For some, the constituency view will trump that of their whip.
– Weak leadership. This is not to imply that either the prime minister or the leader of the opposition are personally weak; you don’t get to be a frontline politician, let alone leader of your party, if you are weak. But, for differing reasons, they both lack clout with their backbenchers. Neither has the ability to rally their troops, to use their leadership to bring more than a handful of recalcitrant MPs with them.
– The lack of any parliamentary majority. Things would not be easy for the prime minister and her whips even with a comfortable majority, but they are made much worse by its absence.
– The Fixed-term Parliaments Act. This has made it impossible for the government to make divisions into votes of confidence that would trigger general elections, a tactic John Major, for example, used in the past to force his own party into line. A weapon that could anyway only be used sparingly, this would not have been enough to force every MP into line, but it would have helped on some votes.
– Visibility. A Labour whip once said that a large part of the art of whipping was helping MPs get off hooks onto which they had foolishly inserted themselves. Over Brexit, the Conservative whips have been repeatedly frustrated by the way many MPs, especially the younger ones, have been willing to take public stances, early on in the process, from which it was then difficult to get them to back down. Some attribute this to social media, and the increased visibility that it brings to individual MPs. I am a bit sceptical about the cause, but the effect seems clear.
– The speaker. He’s not been helpful to the government. Let’s just leave it at that.
Not all of these factors apply to both parties, which is why Julian Smith has it worse than Nick Brown, and this list is probably not exhaustive. We could probably add assorted strategic or tactical decisions made at various points, although these all seem secondary to the broader forces at work. This is, to use the jargon, more about structure than agency. And they are cumulative: it is their combined effect which has made Brexit so difficult for the major parties in parliament, and led us to the position we are in this week.
At various points in the last two decades or so, I’ve tried to get away from studying rebellions, and move onto other projects, but there was always some new whopper of a revolt causing the government problems, all too interesting to walk away from. Like Michael Corleone, every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in.
Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London and co-author of The British General Election of 2017 (Palgrave, 2018)