A smug smile at Blair's defeat

December 2, 2005

Philip Cowley was told his book on Labour rebels was exaggerated. Now he's happy to say 'I told you so'

If you object to smugness, dislike I-told-you-sos or believe, like St Augustine, that it is humility that makes men as angels, then I can promise you that you won't like this article. Avert your gaze and read no further. Study instead yet another insightful report on education reform in Angola.

For, while last month was the worst Tony Blair has experienced as Prime Minister, it was - as a direct result - without doubt the best in my academic career, and proof that one man's trash really is another man's treasure.

The timescale goes like this: October 26: balding, overweight, 30-something academic publishes book titled The Rebels , the subtitle of which is How Blair Mislaid His Majority .

A week later, on November 2, Blair does almost exactly that, winning a Commons vote with a majority of one.

Then a week after that the Government goes one better, crashing to two defeats in the Commons.

Cue lots of media interest, excited publishers (who appear to be able to hear the ring of a bookshop till at a hundred paces), and some mildly envious reactions from academic colleagues, whose writings on the relationship between Marxism and environmental ethics inexplicably appear to lack any such natural publicity boosts.

It wasn't just that this all helped shift a few copies and got me on to the BBC Breakfast sofa with Dermot and Sian (although it was amazing how many of my colleagues thought the latter was the height of cool); the best bit of the whole thing - and this is where the smugness kicks in big time - was that it proved I'd been right.

The book, The Rebels , was finished last summer, when the Prime Minister appeared politically dominant and when everyone was confidently telling me he would be able to manage quite comfortably with his reduced but not insignificant majority.

I shan't name all the academics who told me with absolute confidence that Labour MPs would behave differently now that there was a smaller majority, and that 66 was a perfectly manageable majority (although like the U-boat officer in Dad's Army I have taken down their names). Ditto for hordes of journalists and MPs. No names, no pack drill. When I would try to point out the extent to which rebellion had become commonplace within the Parliamentary Labour Party, people would look at me as if I were a slightly slow eight-year-old who had ingested too much lead somewhere along the line.

Even at the book's launch party, several people told me to my face that they thought I was exaggerating to make the book more appealing. An otherwise positive review of the book in Tribune , published with exquisite timing just days before the majority came crashing down, complained that the book's central argument was not "entirely convincing". "Rarely," wrote the reviewer, "have they (the rebels) challenged the size of Labour's majority."

The MP-as-sheep cliché was so deeply ingrained that many of the most experienced commentators were simply unable to get it out of their head.

Even Roy Hattersley recently described the PLP as "the most supine Members of Parliament in British history" and celebrated the fact that the Terrorism Bill had "at last, awakened a slumbering Parliamentary Labour Party". How can anyone get it so badly wrong? On what planet had he been living?

With the benefit of hindsight, I'd alter just one bit of the book now: a line about Blair always sounding conciliatory after he gets a bloody nose.

None of his body language or rhetoric after this particular setback was at all conciliatory - although that is an attitude that will, of course, just make things worse between him and his MPs.

As for the rest, it is spot-on, 100 per cent, A1, bull's-eye stuff, not a word of which I would change.

Of the 44 MPs listed in the extract (right), all but seven have voted against their whips since the election in May. By the end of last week, a total of 63 Labour backbenchers had voted against their whip in the past six months. There is currently a Labour backbench revolt in a third of divisions, higher than the 21 per cent seen between 2001 and 2005, which was itself the highest rate of rebellion in the postwar era. Home Secretary Charles Clarke's defence of the Government, using my research, was to argue that there had been larger rebellions in the previous five years - such as those over Iraq or top-up fees - which is all perfectly true, except that the current rebellions are averaging 14 MPs at a time, which is exactly the same as in the previous Parliament, despite the fact that there are now fewer Labour MPs. Those who said the backbenchers would have to modify their behaviour once the majority had shrunk could not have been more wrong if they had tried.

Philip Cowley is reader in parliamentary government at Nottingham University.

Office without power

When all the dust had settled, the Government was left with a majority of 66. It may have survived undefeated since 1997, but it had struggled mightily to enact key pieces of legislation while enjoying a majority of over 160. How would it possibly manage with a majority of almost 100 fewer? Echoing Norman Lamont's famous verdict on the Major years, one Labour insider had already described the possibility as "office without power". The line from Labour HQ on election night, and since, has been that this smaller majority will "concentrate the mind". The bloated majorities enjoyed since 1997 had allowed Labour MPs to rebel without giving much thought to the consequences. With a smaller majority, so the argument goes, Labour MPs will have to exercise more self-discipline.

Possibly. There's no doubt that the smaller majority will make some MPs more careful about how they will behave. Rebellions can no longer be entered into without a real risk of defeating the Government. Some Labour MPs have already made it clear to their whips that they intend to behave differently given the size of the majority. But it's worth remembering the last time a government lost a 100-plus majority and found itself re-elected with a much smaller majority. Immediately after the 1992 election, most commentators declared that John Major's 21-seat majority was a perfectly workable state of affairs. But they had reckoned without the extent to which the habit of revolt had been widespread within the Conservative Parliamentary Party during the Thatcher years, years when (just like those between 1997 and 2005) MPs were able to rebel relatively freely given the size of the majority. Ask John Major whether he feels that having such a small majority "concentrated the minds" of Bill Cash, Teddy Taylor, Teresa Gorman et al. Do you think he'd get the joke? Or go back and look at how the Labour Government of 1974-79 managed with a small, and sometimes non-existent, majority. Self-immolation rather than self-control was the order of the day.

Does anyone seriously believe that Jeremy Corbyn got out of bed the morning after the 2005 election, and decided over his muesli and carrot juice that whilst he'd tried this rebellion malarkey for the last eight years it was now time for him to knuckle down and toe the party line? Does anyone think that John McDonnell reached for the phone to contact his regional whip to ask for the latest instructions? Or that Lynne Jones spent the morning boning up on the standing orders of the PLP? Ditto for Bob Marshall-Andrews, or Bob Wareing or Alan Simpson or Kelvin Hopkins or Dennis Skinner or Kate Hoey or Diane Abbott or Glenda Jackson or Mark Fisher or Neil Gerrard or Mike Wood or Peter Kilfoyle or David Taylor.

And that's before you think about Clare Short or Gwyneth Dunwoody or Ian Gibson or Jim Cousins or Frank Field or Gordon Prentice or David Drew or Frank Dobson or Michael Connarty or Harry Cohen or John Austin or Jim Dobbin or Ronnie Campbell or Paul Flynn or Michael Clapham or Roger Berry or Andrew Mackinlay or John Grogan.

Some of these names may not be all that known outside of Westminster, but they are very well known indeed in the Government Whips' Office. The 34 MPs listed above have all rebelled on key votes against the Blair Government before, and there can be little doubt that they will do so again at some point during the 2005 Parliament. And to their ranks will, on occasions, be added people like George Mudie, Ann Cryer, Ian Davidson, Rudi Vis, Geraldine Smith, Bill Etherington, Chris McCafferty, Austin Mitchell, Julie Morgan, Betty Williams, and many others far too obscure to mention.

For the whips the arithmetic is fairly simple - and fairly depressing. Its (the Government's) nominal majority is 66. Its effective majority - once you allow for the non-voting Sinn Fein MPs - is 71. There were 87 Labour MPs with regular "form", who had voted against the whips on ten or more occasions during the last Parliament. Of these, are no longer in the Commons and/or in receipt of the Labour whip. But this still leaves 60 MPs who rebelled on ten or more occasions between 2001 and 2005. That's more than enough to defeat them. Still sitting on the back benches, for example, are 56 of those who voted against the Prevention of Terrorism Bill prior to the 2005 election, easily enough to defeat the Government should they mishandle similar legislation now, even after the terrorist attacks in July 2005.

Of course, a majority of 66 could still be sufficient. It's hardly wafer thin. If the PLP was treated with a bit of TLC then there shouldn't be too many problems. Tony Blair's immediate post-election speech - in which he promised to listen - certainly sounded as if he might take such an approach. But the Prime Minister always sounds like this. After every bloody nose he gets, Tony Blair sounds conciliatory. The problem is that he then struggles to be conciliatory. It's just not in his political DNA. It's like expecting Graham Norton to become butch. It just won't happen. And the result will be trouble. Minds may well be concentrated, but if the Government continue to govern as they governed in the 2001 Parliament, minds will be concentrated on how to defeat the Government.

The problem for the Government will come when (or if) they suffer their first defeat. Once they have gone down to their first defeat, and once it becomes clear to all and sundry that the sky does not fall in, that no votes of confidence are called, and that the Government does not collapse as a result, then defeats will become more regular. Once they've been defeated once, the whips will no longer be able to threaten rebels with victory - and defeat could well follow defeat.

Extract from Philip Cowley, The Rebels: How Blair Mislaid His Majority , published by Politico's.

 

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