A government losing its moorings
For 20 months after the 2019 election, Boris Johnson’s position seemed unassailable. Backed by an 80 seat majority, he faced a divided Opposition. Most voters were relieved that the endless Brexit debate seemed over. Few wanted to undermine a government struggling with a global pandemic unlike any before, and one which gave him the opportunity to appear almost nightly on television.
There were mistakes, but his MPs and the electorate were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. But in September, as the special economic measures introduced to manage the pandemic began to run out, rumblings of discontent began
His international appearances, as host of the G7 and the global COP conference were not the success he hoped for. He was widely mocked for a speech to the CBI where he offered no clear policies, his jokes fell flat and he lost his place for nearly a minute. He was forced into a humiliating U-turn on MPs’ corruption, and abandoning plans for High Speed 2 rail has upset many of his Northern MPs. For the first time since his election, the Labour party is consistently ahead in the polls.
It is now clear that his MPs are no longer willing to give him uncritical support, and this is as true in the Eastern Region as anywhere. So, who is rebelling, and over what?
15 September: Universal Credit
First, in September, the Labour Party forced a vote on whether to keep the £20 “uplift” on Universal Credit, which the Chancellor had introduced to ease the pressures of Covid.
Knowing that some Conservatives were concerned about the hardship which the end of the uplift would cause, and that a vote would not be binding, the government decided to avoid a vote, and ordered its MPs to abstain.
All the other parties voted to retain the uplift, and the vote was 253 to 0. In the East one solitary Conservative MP rebelled and voted with the Opposition.
3 November: MPs’ misconduct
The second event was the attempt to change the rules on MPs’ misconduct. This was intended to protect MP Owen Paterson, who had been found guilty of lobbying Ministers on behalf of firms who were paying him more than £100,000 a year. An amendment which would have suspended Paterson’s punishment while the whole system was reviewed was proposed.
Despite the convention that MPs have a free vote on disciplinary issues, the Conservative Party demanded that their MPs support it. Although many were unhappy with this, most held their noses and supported the amendment, which was carried by 250 to 232 – cutting the government majority from 80 to 18.
In the Eastern Region nearly a quarter of Conservative MPs failed to support the amendment: two rebelled and voted against; ten did not vote.
The day after the vote, public outcry forced the government to reverse its decision, leaving those who had voted for something that many thought was wrong the day before, looking distinctly foolish.
23 November: the Social Care Cap
When he was elected in 2019, Boris Johnson promised that he had an “oven ready” plan for social care, an issue which has defeated successive governments for decades. Almost two years later, a “plan” was revealed. It turned out to be only a plan to protect some people from having to sell their homes to pay for social care. It had nothing to say about the inadequate funding of social care, or the acute staff shortages, which mean that many people do not get the care they have been assessed as needing.
When the detail was revealed, MPs discovered that the proposed “cap” on how much any individual would have to pay towards social care was higher than previous recommendations. It would also have a greater impact on people whose houses are worth less – which disproportionately affects the North – who would still have to sell their homes.
When it came to the vote, the Conservative majority was reduced from 80 to 26. Nineteen Conservative MPs rebelled, and at least 70 did not vote, of whom 57 are believed to have abstained.
Four of the Eastern Region MPs voted with the Opposition, and three more did not vote.
14 December: Covid restrictions
The latest, and largest, rebellion arose when the government proposed new measures to fight the Omicron variant of Covid-19. Labour had indicated that it would support the government, thus ensuring that the measures would be approved. To minimise the rebellion among its own MPs, the government divided the issue into three votes: on mandating vaccination for NHS and Social Care staff; on “Covid passports” for admission to some large venues; and on mask wearing in public places.
In the East, five MPs voted against the government on all three divisions, and six more voted against on at least one.
Rebels in the East
Twenty of the 51 Conservative MPs in the East have now rebelled against the government or abstained on a whipped vote at least once in the last three months. Fourteen of these actively voted against the government on one or more occasions.
Sixteen of these “rebels” are in what would normally be regarded as “safe” seats (with majorities over 10,000). It will be interesting to see how they all vote in future.
The table shows everyone who did not vote with the Government on one or more of these occasions (“F” indicates support for the government; “A” voting against; a blank indicates that the Member did not vote – either actively abstaining or not present).
A government in danger?
A month ago there were already murmurings of discontent in the Conservative Party. This week they have become much louder. They have not been helped by the revival of Labour, who have now had a lead for ten consecutive polls (averaging six percent). Furthermore, for the first time since 2008, the Labour leader is in the lead on the IPSOS-MORI poll of “most capable Prime Minister”.
It is often said that the first time an MP rebels against her or his party is a traumatic event, but after that it becomes easier.
On these five critical votes, almost a third of Conservative MPs in our region have failed to support the government on one or more occasions. It is clear that still more are angry about being forced to vote for the Leadsom amendment, only to find the government reversing its position a day later.
These are just a few of the many problems Conservative MPs face. They include shortages, rising prices, the crises in social care and in the NHS, the unresolved Northern Ireland border issue, tensions with France; allegations of corruption over Covid contracts; and outrage about Christmas parties during lockdown. Finally, the shadow of possible byelection defeat in the “safe” seat of Shropshire North is hanging over them. Many of those newly elected in 2019 are right to feel nervous about their futures.
If a third of Tory MPs were to rebel on a single issue, their majority would disappear entirely. However, that is very unlikely, since those who rebel, do so on different issues; and if the party’s survival were to be under threat, they would certainly band together.
What it means for their present leader is, however, another matter. The Conservative party has a tradition of brutal dismissals of leaders it thinks are failing – it even happened to Margaret Thatcher. It is not clear that Johnson will continue to pass the test if his recent record continues. In our region we could find some of our MPs sharpening their knives.