Choppy waters lie ahead for the prime minister and his government, whose ambitious legislative agenda is now threatened by Tory MPs planning to rebel through vote strikes or other means.
At the time of writing, the government has a 75-seat working majority, putting it in a stronger position than Theresa May’s government following her 2019 confidence vote. Still, the divisions within the party are clear – 148 MPs voted against Johnson. Their numbers are four times the number needed to wipe out the government’s majority on a range of issues. While some of those rebels will go back to being loyal, others will not.
Those rebels who are determined to continue their hostilities have suggested that they will take part in a vote strike, by which they will abstain in key votes. A government with a 75-seat majority can deal with 74 MPs abstaining, but if it were to happen en masse it would lead to government defeats, especially if those on vote strike combine with those voting against key pieces of legislation.
This course of action is likely to remain limited. Doing it once causes an impact, but with each time they do it, its value decreases. It also raises the risk of them having the whip removed. With a majority of 75, the prime minister can’t afford to lose too many MPs, but he certainly has the power to send a message to a number of them.
Deal or no deal
Instead of vote strikes, what is most likely to become the key legislative game in the House of Commons is bargaining. Rather than trying to defeat legislation outright, MPs are likely to bargain their support for key changes to bills. And there are a lot of MPs to keep happy – 148 rebels are effectively worth four times the government’s majority, as each rebel’s vote is worth two if they switch from voting with to voting against the government.
The first piece of legislation these rebellious MPs are likely to take apart is the forthcoming bill designed to override parts of the Northern Ireland protocol. This is likely to incense MPs who are concerned about the UK potentially breaking international law and those who are concerned about the effect of the legislation on Northern Ireland more widely.
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While MPs won’t rebel on every issue, rebellions have the potential to derail several policy areas on several fronts. Rebels are not a cohesive group and there are few issues which unite them, apart from having no confidence in the prime minister’s leadership. The rebels are a mix of Remainers and Brexiteers and they include all wings of the party, as well as different intakes (2019, 2017, 2015, 2010 and beyond). Whips will struggle to corral these rebellious MPs when the time comes to vote – and given their divided nature, the rebels may also struggle to organise themselves.
One benefit of having a non-cohesive group of rebels is that the government can try and play them against each other, but there are costs associated too. For instance, giving in to the demands of one particular group could well enrage another. There is also the chance that normally loyal MPs will dive into the bargaining feeding frenzy as well to avoid missing out on concessions they want.
It is important to remember that the government does not have a majority in the House of Lords and their lordships have been very willing to test the government on certain amendments. Research shows that in the last parliamentary session ending May 2022, the government was defeated 128 times in the Lords.
When deciding which battles to fight, the Lords usually take interest in how an issue has been received in the House of Commons. If the government faces a reduced majority on a particular issue or amendment, the Lords tend to reinsert it and send it back to the House of Commons to allow them to think again (in the hope that the government will end up having to accept it). If the House of Commons becomes more rebellious, the Lords will probably become even more assertive. Here, the government will be fighting battles in both Houses, and rebels in the Commons will probably coordinate with peers to get what they want.
Staying the course
The situation will need a strong whipping system, not just in terms of using their usual tactics to get MPs to vote how the leadership want them to, but also by listening to the concerns of backbenchers and reporting them back to the leadership. Whipping is a two-way street – and whips should pick their battles accordingly.
The government would also be wise to make use of backbench policy committees to gauge the opinion of backbenchers before introducing legislation, so it knows what the key areas of contestation will be.
These potential solutions as well as the rebelliousness of MPs are likely to slow down the legislative process, and some bills will inevitably get bogged down. So the government’s ambition to present 38 bills to parliament this session seems even more wildly optimistic than it did before the confidence vote. To navigate these choppy waters, the government needs to be willing to compromise. It will be at the behest of Conservative backbenchers for the foreseeable future.
Thomas Caygill has received funding from the Economic and Social Research Council.