Conservative Intelligence

Conservative Intelligence

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Last Updated: Friday, October 28th, 2011

Most MPs want to be Ministers.  For older ones, office (or the prospect of it) has come and gone; for new ones,  the possibility is still there.  This helps to explain the conventional Commons wisdom that new intakes are always the least rebellious.  Last Monday, this viewpoint was turned on its head: almost 50 members of the 2010 intake refused to back the Government in the lobbies on the EU referendum vote.

This has been explained by MP concerns about not being selected by Euro-sceptic local Conservative Associations when the reduction of Commons seats is brought into effect.  By resentment with David Cameron over policy and personnel.  And by responsiveness to local opinion: while the EU isn’t a voter priority, those who feel strongly about it are often vocal and active.

That last reason is particularly powerful, but should be understood as part of a culture change that is taking place among Tory MPs.  A generation ago, most saw the role as work, but not as a job: most had outside interests, and thus worked outside the Commons as well as within it.  But since then, that idea of what an MP is has changed, as the vote share of the main political parties has declined and voter demands have risen.

The expenses scandal has served only to accelerate this process: part of the response to it was a toughening-up of rules on the declaration of outside interests.  In the competitive world of modern constituency politics, no-one wants to be labelled a part-time MP.  During the last Parliament, David Cameron’s experiment with open primaries was a nod to today’s voters seeing themselves as masters, not servants.

The consequence is a new generation of MPs that, tugged between the Government Whips on the one hand and their voters on the other, will usually put local views first: after all, the chance of losing one’s seat is more terrifying than that of not being made a Minister.  It is no coincidence that the two new MPs selected by full open primaries, Caroline Dinenage and Sarah Wollaston, voted against the Government on Monday.

In Opposition, Cameron attempted to exploit the anti-politics mood not only with open primaries but by first setting up a special A-list of candidates and by later appealing for future MPs with no background in the party at all.  The combined consequence of this short-term political experiment and longer-term cultural change is a headache for his own whips.  The old appeals to loyalty simply count for less.

They had force in a Commons collectively shaped by the militarising experience of World War Two: indeed, many of the whips of an older generation had been wartime officers.  But they have less in a new century in which hierarchy and deference are strangers.  MPs who have worked in business, where working structures are often flat and women have senior positions, often see the whips’ ways as part of a bygone age.

The logic of these changes is for executive and legislature to go their separate ways: for MPs be become full-time legislators and for Ministers to be drawn from outside Parliament altogether.  But politics isn’t a rationalist business, and the present uneasy accommodation looks set to continue.  It is aided by Labour seats being different from Tory ones: voters in them are less active (though they provide more casework).

In short, the trend for MPs as local champions rather than distant representatives looks set to continue: no wonder this is already the most rebellious Parliament on the Government side since the war.  And although the Europe issue is especially toxic for the Conservatives, the speed at which Government proposals for forestry and free milk were dropped is a reminder that rebelliousness can flare up at any time.

Cameron is going to have to take a long hard look at the relationship between the Whips and his backbenches.  There are no easy answers to managing the tension, which in most respects is a healthy one, between government and constituents, but Number Ten must be asking itself if there is a proper plan for helping the new Tory intake in particular to juggle their role as MPs – one that is becoming more difficult and demanding.

By Paul Goodman





Jake Berry MP: Getting private rents down means fixing the whole housing market
“Part of getting the housing market right is dealing with our chronic shortage of homes. Here too, the government is moving quickly and in the right direction. Release of public land, the payment of the New Homes Bonus and, crucially, the reform of our planning system will increase supply. Estimates vary but there are believed to be about 240,000 consented but un-built homes in Britain today. If we built every one of these, it would equate to one year’s supply of housing. Without reform we would not be able to replenish our national land bank quickly enough.” Read more:

George Eustice MP: For Eurosceptics to succeed, the Conservative party has to be united – votes need to be won rather than lost in parliament
“A tendency for martyrdom has dogged euroscepticism since 1975.  Eurosceptics have a habit of picking fights prematurely when they are ill prepared on ground where they could never win anyway…To those eurosceptics itching to embark on yet another noble Charge of the Light Brigade, I would say this: once this latest fiasco is out of the way, recognise that it is not enough to try, you have to learn to succeed.  If you want to succeed you need to win votes in parliament rather than lose votes and if you want to win votes you need to unite the Conservative Party, not drive a coach and horses through the middle of it.” Read more:

David Nuttall MP: 84% of us have never had a chance to vote on EU membership. Let’s change that.
“Many more than 100,000 people have signed a petition calling for a referendum.  However, the Government’s reaction to this “little issue” is perhaps the most telling of all.  This is definitely not a “little” issue.  This is THE big issue.  The EU affects our economy, our immigration policy, our foreign policy and much more besides – in a nutshell, it affects our way of life and our ability to control our own destiny. It saddens me deeply that David Cameron appears to have decided that Conservative MPs’ will not be allowed a free vote in today’s debate.  The message this sends out is that it is not only the public who cannot be trusted but that MPs cannot be trusted either.” Read more:

David Lidington MP: A serious Conservative Party must reject this referendum motion
We are less than a year and a half into the first Conservative-led Government for thirteen years. It is a Coalition Government: that means it cannot do everything Conservatives would like…The British public want to see this Government focusing on growth, dealing with the deficit, making work pay and delivering better schools. The Eurozone crisis is hobbling the global recovery by creating massive market and business uncertainty. There could be no worse time to change our priorities and add to that economic uncertainty, which would be enormous, particularly for inward investment, with an EU referendum of no clear meaning.” Read more:

Paul Goodman: Trust in Cameron on Europe is breaking down. He should bring in the ’22 to repair it.
“The Prime Minister should commit himself first to considering the results of this Conservative policy review with the party’s Liberal Democrat partners in the Coalition, and then agreeing an updated Government policy position on the EU. My seven-point plan would mean sharing some power with Conservative MPs and the party more widely.  It wouldn’t breach the Coalition Agreement, let alone bring down the Government – though it certainly would require some tough negotiating with Nick Clegg and his party, and soon…in the wake of yesterday evening’s vote, and with Treaty changes perhaps coming nearer, the Prime Minister has – as one of his predecessors used to put it – no alternative.” Read more:

Lord Ashcroft: Turn down the volume on Europe or lose the next election
“Monday’s display was damaging because it suggested to ordinary voters that the Conservatives are far away from them when it comes to priorities – the most important issues facing the country, and their families.  The point is not whether they agree with us over Europe: the sceptical Tory view, articulated over many years by William Hague and others, is close to the centre of gravity in public opinion.  The question is whether it matters to them as much as other things matter, and the fact is that it does not…Finally, some will say principle dictates that we should spend our time debating what we believe to be important, regardless of the voters…In which case, I hope they enjoy themselves.  But let’s hear no more from them about that majority.” Read more:

Tim Montgomerie: In the battle against knife criminals it’s Nick de Bois MP 400 and Ken Clarke nil
“24 hours ago Ken Clarke was telling the House of Commons that mandatory sentences for 16 and 17 year-olds were “un-British”. Today he’s been forced to climb down in the face of a tenacious campaign by The Sun and from Conservative backbencher Nick de Bois, MP for Enfield North…The U-turn is another sign of the growing power of the Tory backbenches. 81 rebels on Monday on Europe and now more than forty rebels on knife crime. Rebellion is in the parliamentary party’s bloodstream. The backbenches do not fear the Government Whips but the Government fears its backbenches. That’s a very dangerous place for an administration that’s only eighteen months old.” Read more:

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