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Tory rebels: the inevitability of backbench revolts

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The Queen's Speech provoked warnings of Conservative backbench rebellion and questions about the future of the coalition government. House of Lords reform and gay marriage are lightning rods for Tories concerned about concessions to Liberal Democrats. So far, David Cameron's efforts to balance coalition interests with party unity have met with mixed success. Poor local election results in April appear to have prompted concessions on gay marriage, with the Prime Minister now set to offer his MPs a free vote. This victory for backbench muscle casts further uncertainty over House of Lords reform, cherished by the Liberal Democrats. If senior Conservatives hope that deferring these confrontations might eliminate backbench disaffection, then they should draw a lesson from history.

Conservative backbench rebellions have a long pedigree. The first-past-the-post electoral system means that Britain's major political parties are actually broad coalitions. Politicians on the right, and the left, are obliged to work with others of similar persuasion, even if they disagree on points of detail or overall emphasis. Whatever its faults, this has been a stabilising force in British politics, with serious differences of opinion manifesting themselves as internal party squabbles. Backbench revolts follow if the leadership is judged to have abandoned a party doctrine that others hold dear.

A recognisably modern party system emerged in the early 1800s, but internal party discipline took considerably longer to develop. Early 'Conservative' parliamentarians demonstrated a rebellious tendency from the outset. In 1829 a majority revolted against their leader, the Duke of Wellington, over proposals to give Catholics equal political rights. A majority of Conservative parliamentarians opposed their leaders over extensions to the electoral franchise in 1832 and 1867. And Conservative rebellion in the 1840s, this time over economic policy, resulted in the Liberals dominating government for the next two decades.

From the 1880s most Conservative backbenchers were reconciled to the gradual evolution of basic political rights. Indeed, the new electorate could even supply a convenient democratic gloss to backbench causes. Jingoist imperialism, and opposition to groups such as Catholics and Jews, found ready support among many voters. Around the same time, the Conservative leadership tightened its grip on party management. The move towards presidential-style general elections enhanced its authority, as ordinary people now associated the party with its leader. Increased central control hardened backbench resentment and by the 1900s the Conservatives (then known as Unionists) were once again bitterly divided on economic policy. This kept them in opposition and led some MPs to form breakaway parties, such as the short-lived, right-wing National Party. Even House of Lords reform, which most Conservatives opposed, stoked divisions in 1910-11 between those who advocated abstaining on the Liberals' proposal and those who wished to oppose it to the last ditch.

The formation in 1914 of a Liberal-Conservative wartime coalition intensified backbench disquiet. As a result, senior Tories conceded to give backbenchers greater oversight of policy. The continuation of the coalition after the First World War provoked a campaign by Tory backbenchers to decouple the party from the Liberals. They succeeded in 1922 and subsequently formed the 1922 Committee, still influential today.

Throughout the 1920s and '30s Conservative backbenchers were a thorn in the side of their leader, Stanley Baldwin. Popular with the electorate, Baldwin's moderate politics were greatly resented by diehard MPs who accused him of abandoning Conservatism. Like present-day Tory rebels, these diehards received considerable support in the right-wing press. In place of Europe, it was empire which served as the lightening-rod for disaffection. Imperial economic policy, and greater self-determination for India, provoked prolonged campaigns and parliamentary revolts. Ironically, Winston Churchill's rise to the premiership in 1940 owed much to his leadership of the Tory rebels, especially their attacks on Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Nazi Germany.

In the 1940s and '50s backbenchers were relatively quiet, although 40 maintained an active oversight of their leaders, especially on colonial affairs. This cohort mobilised from the late-1950s, as decolonisation accelerated. Their campaign was fused with concerns over race, sparked by the Rhodesian crisis, but fuelled by disquiet over non-white Commonwealth immigration. In 1965 Edward Heath inherited a party beset with backbench anxiety about British decline. Empire continued to stir deep emotions, but immigration diminished the appeal of the Commonwealth. The Common Market offered a capitalist solution, but the abandonment of a distinctively British, global role proved hard to swallow. The frequency of backbench revolts abated under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, but as her successor John Major learnt in his battles with the 'Maastricht rebels', Tory divisions could not be completely eliminated.

What is the result of backbench rebellion? Most revolts fail to stop legislation, but the propensity of Conservative MPs to rebel, to some extent restricts the power of Conservative leaders. David Cameron has worked hard to rebrand his party's image, but the messy result of the 2010 general election, an unfavourable economic climate, poor local government election results, and continuing unease on his backbenches, all limit the Prime Minister's room for manoeuvre. The most successful Conservative leaders are those who appear to reconcile passionate party sentiment with the interests of uncommitted, wavering voters. Cameron's handling of the Euro crisis and House of Lords reform are likely to be the supreme tests of this particular skill.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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