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4 February 2011

Coalition rebellions exceed Blair’s whole first term

In just nine months, there have been more coalition rebellions than by Labour MPs from 1997 to 2001.

By Samira Shackle

Two small-scale backbench rebellions last night, over plans to sell of Britain’s forests to private companies, have brought the coalition past a not-altogether-positive milestone.

Dissenting votes from seven Liberal Democrat MPs and three Conservatives mean that the coalition has now suffered 97 rebellions. This is already – in just nine months – more than during the whole first term of the Blair government: there were 96 rebellions from Labour MPs between 1997 and 2001.

This trend is noted in an update to research, conducted by Professor Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart of the Centre for British Politics at Nottingham University in November last year, in which they suggested that “rebellion has become the norm and cohesion the exception”.

They point out:

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There have been 13 separate rebellions by coalition MPs since the start of the New Year – mostly, but not exclusively on the Tory side. They have occurred over a range of issues: Europe, fixed-term parliaments (both Tory only), postal services (a mix of Lib Dem and Conservative dissent) and the Education Maintenance Allowance (exclusively on the Lib Dem side).

It’s also interesting that backbench Liberal Democrat MPs are rebelling much more than they are given credit for. During the last parliament (2005-2010), there were 39 Lib Dem rebellions. This has already been exceeded in the past nine months, in which there have been 44 rebellions. While the whole of the last parliament saw 98 dissenting votes by Lib Dems, the coalition so far has suffered 144.

November’s research suggested that this trend was even more striking as the first term of a parliament tends to be the most loyal. Perhaps this is not surprising, however, given the relatively low instance of coalition governments in the UK.

Although these rebellions tell an interesting story about disagreement within backbench ranks, it’s also worth noting that they do not present a severe headache for ministers because Tories and Lib Dems tend to rebel on different areas: the former on constitutional affairs such as Europe, and the latter on social issues.