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CAMERON’S EURO-REBELLION WASN’T A ONE-OFF
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
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