Does boredom explain the Tories’ rebellious class of 2010?

This parliament has shown what happens when you leave too many MPs unoccupied.

Maybe it’s the logical result of being in coalition, or maybe it’s a sign of David Cameron’s diminishing authority, but the Conservatives' class of 2010 has helped keep this parliament lively and unpredictable. It’s also provided us with a lot of fun. The government can’t seem to do anything without the rebels emerging from the shadows.

Fierce euroscepticism, of course, explains some of their behaviour, with Europe causing hyperactivity like no other issue. But could there be another, unspoken, simpler reason?

According to the Economist’s Bagehot, many of the 2010 intake feel neglected and underused. Overlooked for promotion, partly due to the constraints of coalition, they’ve been left with little to do, except to be a nuisance, with Europe the obvious cause to take their frustrations out on.

"The 2010 Tory intake was among the biggest in parliamentary history and excited high hopes. Its members were diverse and included high-flyers from business and academia.

"There was talk of such talents reinvigorating Tory policy, bolstering David Cameron’s standing within his party and restoring trust in politicians. Many began vigorously, starting research groups, joining select committees and blogging and tweeting like anything. But now they are stuck.

"Only a few of the new crop have been given junior ministerial jobs: mostly those—such as Nick Boles and Matthew Hancock—with long-standing ties to Mr Cameron and his coterie. Far from bolstering the prime minister’s authority, the rest have proved exceptionally mutinous.

"Overlooked for promotion, and in the rebels’ case unofficially barred, many of the brightest 2010ers are now demoralised."

A report out this week by Nottingham University revealed that of the 148 Conservatives who have voted against the Prime Minister since the general election, 90, or 85 per cent, have come from the 2010 cohort.

Independent-minded MPs, those without a "filter", as Nadine Dorries would put it, are a refreshing and much-needed change from the clones we were subjected to under the last government. Who wants to hear MP after MP trotting out the party line, when listening to someone off-message is far more enjoyable?

Tim Montgomerie has argued that the class of 2010 could end up being Cameron’s greatest legacy to his party, combining the best of popular and compassionate conservatism. But it’s their route into parliament that gives us another reason to explain their tetchiness. Montgomerie notes that many are seasoned campaigners: "One of the other strengths of the 2010 intake is that many have fought two or three elections to win their seats – often emulating the best of the Liberal Democrats’ pavement style of politics."

Anyone fattened up on a diet of Blairite/Brownite control-freakery could be forgiven for thinking that politics has entered a different era. And in some respects it has. With little chance of ministerial positions, and the odds firmly stacked against a Conservative majority in two years’ time, what is there to lose? Best go out with a bang some might be thinking. At least if a large chunk of the current crop lose their seats, they can hold their heads high and say they did things their way.

But "benign neglect" is no way to treat backbenchers, cautions Bagehot. The system is broke and needs fixing. Parliament will have to adapt to accommodate future new blood:

"Party bosses are going to have to find backbenchers more meaningful employment. This might involve, for example, beefing up the powers of the select committees to summon witnesses, or encouraging the currently gentle bill committees to give legislation real critical scrutiny. They will also have to adopt a more conciliatory approach to whipping, making it less an exercise in carpeting than in constructive career advice."

This parliament has already shown what happens when you leave too many MPs unoccupied. Rebelling becomes their only taste of power. 

Ben Mitchell is deputy editor of the cross-party blog Speaker's Chair. He tweets as @bmitchellwrites

Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, one of the 2010 rebels. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ben Mitchell is deputy editor of the cross-party blog Speaker's Chair. He tweets as @bmitchellwrites

Photo: Getty
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Leader: Corbyn’s second act

Left-wing populism is not enough – Labour must provide a real alternative.

Since Jeremy Corbyn first stood for the Labour leadership he has been fortunate in his opponents. His rivals for leader ran lacklustre campaigns in 2015 and failed to inspire members and activists who longed to escape the tortured triangulations of the Ed Miliband era. Later, at the 2017 general election, Mr Corbyn was confronted by a dismal Conservative campaign that invited the electorate’s contempt. Theresa May’s complacency – as well as Mr Corbyn’s dynamic campaign –has helped propel the Labour leader to a position from which he could become prime minister.

With greater power, however, comes greater responsibility. Mr Corbyn’s opponents have for too long preferred to insult him or interrogate his past rather than to scrutinise his policies. They have played the man not the ball. Now, as he is a contender for power rather than merely a serial protester, Mr Corbyn’s programme will be more rigorously assessed, as it should be. Over the months ahead, he faces the political equivalent of the “difficult second album”. 

Labour’s most electorally successful – and expensive – election policy was its pledge to abolish university tuition fees. Young voters were not only attracted by this promise but also by Mr Corbyn’s vow, in an interview with the free music paper NME, to “deal with” the issue of graduate debt. The Labour leader has since been accused of a betrayal after clarifying that the phrase “to deal with” did not amount to a “commitment” to wipe out student debt. In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, he explained that he had been “unaware of the size of it [graduate debt] at the time”. (The cost of clearing all outstanding student debt is estimated at £100bn.)

In fairness to Mr Corbyn, Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of existing student debt (perhaps it should have) and his language in the NME interview was ambiguous. “I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [graduate debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off,” he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 after entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Yet the confusion demonstrates why Mr Corbyn must be more precise in his policy formulations. In a hyperactive media age, a single stray sentence will be seized upon.

At the general election, Labour also thrived by attracting the support of many of those who voted to remain in the European Union (enjoying a 28-point lead over the Conservatives among this group). Here, again, ambiguity served a purpose. Mr Corbyn has since been charged with a second betrayal by opposing continued UK membership of the single market. On this, there should be no surprise. Mr Corbyn is an ardent Eurosceptic: he voted against the single market’s creation in 1986 and, from the back benches, he continually opposed further European integration.

However, his position on the single market puts him into conflict with prominent Labour politicians, such as Chuka Umunna and the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, as well as the party membership (66 per cent of whom support single market membership) and, increasingly, public opinion. As the economic costs of Brexit become clearer (the UK is now the slowest-growing G7 country), voters are less willing to support a disruptive exit. Nor should they. 

The worse that Britain fares in the Brexit negotiations (the early signs are not promising), the greater the desire for an alternative will be. As a reinvigorated opposition, it falls to the Labour Party to provide it. Left-wing populism is not enough. 

The glory game

In an ideal world, the role of sport should be to entertain, inspire and uplift. Seldom does a sporting contest achieve all three. But the women’s cricket World Cup final, on 23 July at Lord’s, did just that. In a thrilling match, England overcame India by nine runs to lift the trophy. Few of the 26,500 spectators present will forget the match. For this may well have been the moment that women’s cricket (which has for so long existed in the shadow of the men’s game) finally broke through.

England have twice before hosted women’s World Cups. In 1973 matches were played at small club grounds. Twenty years later, when England won the final at Lord’s, the ground was nearly empty, the players wore skirts and women were banned from the members’ pavilion. This time, the players were professionals, every ticket was sold, and the match was shown live around the world. At the end, girls and boys pressed against the advertising hoardings in an attempt to get their heroes’ autographs. Heather Knight, Anya Shrubsole, Sarah Taylor, Tammy Beaumont, and the rest of the team: women, role models, world champions. 

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue