Rebel rebel − the MPs who step out of line

Huw Merriman voted against the latest lockdown measures. Photo credit: MP’s own/screen grab from parliamentary broadcast
Huw Merriman voted against the latest lockdown measures. Photo credit: MP’s own/screen grab from parliamentary broadcast

Could it be that, for some of our members of parliament, pleasing their constituents is becoming more important than obeying the party line? Perhaps MPs have seen how the public warms to celebrities doing the right thing – think Marcus Rashford and free school meals – and have decided they want some of that.

When 34 Conservative MPs stepped into the ‘No’ lobby on 4 November to vote against the current lockdown measures, they were no doubt confident they would be applauded by a large section of the population – especially by those small businesses, pubs and restaurants anxious about their survival.

As well as the ‘usual suspects’ from the party’s ‘libertarian’ right, the rebels included mainstream Tories such as Huw Merriman, MP for Bexhill and Battle. In a question to Boris Johnson, he asked: “The prime minister has an unenviable set of decisions that he has to make, but can he recognise the frustration the residents in East Sussex feel?

“We have one of the lowest Covid rates of any county across England, and the admissions in East Sussex Healthcare Trust are now 20 and there is not one placed in a high-dependency unit. The residents of East Sussex have clearly done the right thing, but they are faced with a national lockdown. Can the prime minister demonstrate to me that the damage that we cause in East Sussex by locking down our economy, [the damage to] liberty and livelihoods, would be a lot worse were we to do absolutely nothing?”

Caroline Ansell voted against the government on free school meals. Photo credit: David Woolfall, licensed under CCBY3.0
Caroline Ansell voted against the government on free school meals. Photo credit: David Woolfall, licensed under CCBY3.0 

Another recent rebel is Caroline Ansell, MP for Eastbourne & Willingdon, one of five Conservatives who backed a Labour motion on free school meals on 21 October.

In an interview with BBC South East the next day, the normally loyal MP and former teacher said: “I just felt particularly strongly that, although free school meal vouchers are sticking plasters, … in such a time as this when things are so very challenging, [they are] a lever that we could use.

“And undeniably, the weeks and months ahead are going to be difficult and this would have reached families in my home town of Eastbourne.”

And she concluded: “We are very much in the shadow of the virus and to make sure that our children have that nutrition, that meal, is just absolutely foundational.”

Ansell was first elected in 2015, losing in 2017, only to win back Eastbourne at the 2019 general election from the Liberal Democrat Stephen Lloyd with an increased 4,331 majority (last time she won by just 733 votes). So just like new ‘Red Wall’ Conservative MPs in the north, she has every reason to appeal to her ‘left flank’ of traditionally non-Tory voting constituents.         

It could be argued that it is easy for Conservatives to rebel when their government has an 80-seat majority. But Ansell was part of the government. And in voting against it, she quit her post as a parliamentary private secretary, often regarded as the first rung on the ladder to ministerial superstardom.

Ansell is not alone. Former secretary of state for the environment Theresa Villiers recently voted against the government on the issue of food standards in the event of a US trade deal. She helped force a rethink, with MPs on 4 November approving the Agriculture Bill with an added clause requiring the government to seek equivalence on agrifood standards in relation to future trade. No chlorinated chicken for us, in other words.

According to the i newspaper columnist Hugo Gye (24 October), in this parliament “at least 86 different backbenchers have defied the government whip in at least one parliamentary vote on issues as various as Huawei, trade deals and international law … emboldened to speak out against the prime minister”. It could, he adds, spell trouble for Johnson, if they joined forces.

Labour rebels defy Starmer

And it’s not just Conservatives voting against their party whip. The biggest Labour rebellion in this parliament saw 17 MPs, members of the Socialist Campaign Group, defy Keir Starmer’s order to abstain on the Overseas Operations Bill which, among other provisions, includes greater legal protection for soldiers serving abroad and, in effect, critics claim, gives them a licence to torture and kill with impunity. Three of the MPs quit their shadow cabinet posts.

This might be considered a principled position to take, and many Labour activists have privately said they were disappointed that MPs were not allowed a free vote. The Labour leader, on the other hand, probably weighed up the media blowback from being seen as not fully backing ‘our brave troops’.

The future of parliamentary revolts

It seems that Starmer will have to live with rebellion. The dissenting MPs have set up the Socialist Parliamentary Research Group(SPRG), based in the offices of Brighton Kemptown & Peacehaven MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle. They will see their job as reminding the Labour leader of the 10 radical pledges he made during the leadership campaign and to which he recently recommitted.

Similarly, the Conservatives who triumphed in former Labour seats last year have formed the Northern Research Group to keep Boris Johnson to his own pledge to “level up” and not neglect the north.

Both titles consciously echo the name of the ultimately triumphant pro-Brexit European Research Group, with two of its leading lights, Michael Gove and Priti Patel, now in senior government roles.

The extent to which the new Labour grouping feels the need to further defy Starmer will determine how united the public deem the party to be. It is often said that disunited parties do not win elections.

The frequency of rebellion by Conservative MPs could well determine the course of the present government.

Rebellion is in the air.

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