Lib Dem MPs lead the way as rebellion reaches postwar high

63 per cent of the party’s backbenchers have voted against the coalition government.

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Many predicted that the expenses scandal would lead to fewer independent-minded MPs, as outspoken backbenchers were replaced with party placemen. But new research by Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart (of the indispensable Revolts) suggests such fears were misplaced.

The research shows that backbench rebellions against the government are more frequent now than at any time since the Second World War. Out of the 110 divisions in the Commons since parliament resumed, there have been rebellions by coalition MPs in 59. As the graph below shows, there has never been a parliamentary term in which a majority of divisions brought rebellions by government MPs.


What's more, the first session of a parliament is typically the most loyal: there are fewer disgruntled former ministers, newly elected MPs are reluctant to defy the whips and the government's authority is at its strongest. As Cowley and Stuart write:

Between 1945 and 1997, the six sessions immediately after a change in government saw rates of rebellion between 0 (1964) and 6 per cent (1979). The current rate of rebellion is therefore nine times what had until now been the postwar peak.

In total, 89 coalition MPs have so far voted against the government – 67 of them Conservatives, along with 22 Lib Dems. If we take into account that 22 of the Lib Dems' 57 MPs are members of the payroll vote, a remarkable 63 per cent of the party's backbench MPs have defied the whip.

But two critical factors have kept the government from coming even close to a defeat (its lowest majority has been 58). First, the average rebellion comprises just six MPs, and second, Conservative and Lib Dem MPs tend to rebel on different issues.

Lib Dems have voted against the VAT increase, the introduction of free schools and the expansion of academies. By contrast, Conservatives have tended to vote against measures such as electoral reform and fixed-term parliaments. As things stand, there is little prospect of them joining forces to inflict a defeat on the coalition.

The government's tuition fees bill will provoke the largest Lib Dem rebellion yet (nearly 60 per cent of the party's backbenchers are expected to rebel) but thanks to near-unanimous Conservative support, there is no chance of a coalition defeat.

But the persistent rebellion of Lib Dem MPs such as Bob Russell, Mike Hancock, Andrew George and Mark Williams offers further evidence of the party's identity crisis.

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.