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The government has won on Commons votes — but Tory backbenchers are the real victors

As long as the new system of voting remains in place, Conservative backbenchers will have their powers increased.

By Stephen Bush

The House of Commons has voted to adopt a new and convoluted method of voting in order for MPs to return — although 26 Conservative broke the whip to vote against the changes.

It was a vote which attests, again, to the fragility of the government’s position. It was the same coalition that has come close to defeating the government on several occasions already: former ministers with nothing to lose, men elected in 2015 or earlier who believed they will never hold ministerial office, MPs in marginal seats and select committee chairs.

It was a reminder, too of the old whip’s rule that MPs who have rebelled or been outspoken once are likely to do so again. Craig Whittaker and Robert Largan, two MPs for marginal seats who spoke out against Dominic Cummings and the latter only elected in 2019, were among the unusual faces in the division lobbies.

Despite those forces, the government managed to win. But while it is a victory for the government, it’s also a major coup for Conservative backbenchers, who, thanks to this new and lengthy voting system look better placed to defeat the government and secure concessions than ever before.

Why? Well, it comes back to the system in place for MPs who cannot vote for whatever reason: pairing. Essentially, for every MP planning to vote for something but who cannot for one reason or another, you “pair” them with an MP planning to vote against.  

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Whips are going to need to find a lot of pairs for MPs who cannot attend the House of Commons as normal, and the need is going to be more acute on the government side. Why? Because without wishing to belittle the work of opposition MPs, the government side has ministers and so their need for pairs tends to be greater. Votes now take the best part of 45 minutes, and frankly it is going to be very hard for the government frontbench to attend very many of them as it stands while still fulfilling their ministerial functions.  

The problem, from the perspective of winning parliamentary votes, is that not all Conservative MPs support the government as consistently as the others. Some have ideological objections to parts of the government’s agenda. Others think they are on the shelf until Boris Johnson is gone and are keen to speed that date along. These MPs can simply reject the request to “pair” with a Labour MP who is unavailable if they intend to vote against the whip. Two Conservative MPs have already told me that they plan to refuse some pairing requests if they think they can defeat the government on China policy, where many backbenchers think the government has too conciliatory a position. So that eats into the number of loyal Tories available to vote.  

Government whips now have a very tricky bit of maths in front of them, and well-organised Conservative rebels will find that as long as this system is in place, they can defeat the government more easily than in the era of online voting.