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In the News

How the government faced down a backbench rebellion

Mike McCartney

14th July 2021

The foreign aid cuts and what it says about the role of MPs

I've written before about how backbenchers are far from the sheep that we considered them to be as recently as the 1990s.

Here in late January:

In December of last year:

And here:

While we’re here it is worth considering again the question as to why MPs are more rebellious.

One explanation for the increasing independence of MPs is that party loyalty among the electorate is no longer as high, i.e. partisan dealignment has occurred so that voters no longer vote blindly according to previous psychologically based attachments. We could add that the rise of the career politician also helps us understand this trend. This runs contrary to a great deal of media criticism, which contends that those who have entered the Commons without real-world experience, or a profession, to fall back on are more likely to do what their respective party whips command of them because this type of MP wants to be promoted. In fact, because MPs of this nature have been steeped in politics long before entering the Commons, the argument is that they can spot flaws in government plans and vote for what they as being the best course of action for their constituents.

What I like about the foreign cut story in the Guardian is how it details the way the potential government defeat on the issue was avoided.

So this is a good example of how the party machinery kicks in.

As the paper reports:

"After spending months trying to dodge an embarrassing defeat in the Commons on cutting international aid, the government sprang a last-minute vote and announced details of a “compromise” with 14 sceptical Tories.

What happened?

With Boris Johnson having a majority of 80 in parliament, the rebels’ ringleader, Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary, needed about 40 Conservatives to join him to scupper the government’s plan. After personal lobbying, Johnson and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, managed to sway a small but significant number of waverers who voted with the government.

Despite attempts to force a vote on the issue in the past, there had been no formal declaration where MPs were forced to show their hand, so the number of rebels remained a mystery until the formal division. In the end, the government won comfortably by 333 votes to 298, with just 25 Tories rebelling. They included the former prime minister Theresa May and ex-cabinet members including Jeremy Hunt, Karen Bradley and David Davis."

You don't really need to know for the purposes of analysing the role of MPs in the A Level course the full details of the compromise. Just remember it as an example.

The article goes on:

"How did the government pull off a win?

Tory whips breathed a big sigh of relief that they had quietly managed to broker a deal ensuring 14 previously hesitant backbenchers would vote for Sunak’s proposal, including the former cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom. Some Conservative insiders said it was unlikely the government would have called the vote if it thought it was going to lose, though it was still a gamble.

However, given that the exact number of prospective Tory rebels had never been known – estimates ranged up to about 50 – the government still had reason to worry."

See the full story here:

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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