9 Jul 2012

Rebels muster enough MPs to defeat government

The letter signed by 70 rebel Tory MPs is an astute and menacing piece of organisation by the rebels. It shows a breadth of support that should give succour to first-time rebels, but its primary purpose is to nail colours to the mast.

Once you’ve signed a letter like this you can’t turn back, back down, cave in to pressure. These self-proclaimed rebels are, in whipping terms, pretty much now the untouchables. And I can think of a few more who aren’t even on the list (the letter ends: “further names omitted”).

That number “70” translates as defeat for the government on the programme motion (the vote restricting the amount of time spent on the Lords reform bill – what Lib Dems call “the key that unlocks the door” of reform). If only Labour turned up at full strength (254) the Tory rebels would need to muster 67 rebels to defeat the programme motion.

But with some smaller opposition parties lined up to oppose the programme motion (DUP: eight MPs, SNP: six MPs, two independents) plus a full turnout of Labour MPs, the Tory rebels need only 51 MPs to defeat the motion. Labour has at least one MP not well enough to attend, others may be tied up elsewhere.

But there could also be other opposition parties that support the rebellion against the government: Plaid Cymru has three MPs, the SDLP had three MPs, and there are one each from Alliance, the Green Party and Respect in the house.

It’s interesting to see that the letter has 44 signatures from the pre-2010 intake on it and a pretty impressive 36 from the 2010 intake. These “new boys” and “new girls” are supposed to be much more easily disciplined. Their whole parliamentary careers stretch out before them. A whip or minister will ask them if they really want to throw all that away.

Problem is for the government that a lot of these 2010 intake think they will never get a job in government. Some have already rebelled on the Europe referendum and/or other votes and have been told they won’t get a job – so that approach to whipping has successfully made them unreachable.

The tone of the letter is pretty impressive too. “We come from all sides of the Conservative Party, and are writing as reformers… (Lords reform) threatens to pile a constitutional crisis on top of an economic crisis.” It says that the coalition has already fulfilled its promise “to seek consensus and to bring forward proposals”.

Senior Tories are muttering that Lib Dems briefing that Nick Clegg sees this vote as a “test of David Cameron’s leadership” have hampered their efforts to whip Tory MPs (I’m filtering out some stronger language here!). The plan is still to plough on with Lords reform, even if the programme motion is defeated.

It would take up Mondays and Tuesdays as far as they eye can see, going on into the small hours. The coalition plan is to reintroduce another programme motion later in the year when, they calculate, Tory MPs might need some sleep and Labour (in principle, supporters of the reform) are, as senior Lib Dems put it, “shamed” into supporting the bill.

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