Being held to ransom? Er, no.

The Times today has an article, by Roland Watson, reflecting on the creation of the coalition.  It repeats a claim variously made in coverage of the formation of the coalition, namely that, for David Cameron, ‘coalition has let him go to bed without having nightmares about the Tory right, holding him to ransom over Europe, immigration or jail places.’  I have never understood the basis for this claim.   Prime Ministers are rarely under threat from the wing of their party that constitutes the political outlier. 

Take, for example, James Callaghan.  He headed a minority government (1976-79) with his own party badly split, with the left frequently in conflict with the rest of the party.  The goverment suffered frequent defeats.  Indeed, in the 1974-79 Parliament, the Government suffered a total of 42 defeats, 23 of them the consequence of Labour MPs voting against their own party.  However, these defeats were not the result of the Labour left.  Left-wing MPs voted frequently against their own government, but when they did so it was usually in a division in which the Conservative Opposition was abstaining or voting with the Government.   The Government was under threat when members drawn from different parts of the party voted against them.  Such events were less frequent than left-wingers voting against but were much more dangerous.

It is the same under the coalition government.  The Conservative right may on occasion be critical of the Goverment and may sometimes vote against (or some Conservative right-wingers may) but how often are they likely to vote with the Opposition, or for that matter Liberal Democrats, on issues such as Europe?  For David Cameron, the threat comes not from the Tory right but when disquiet spreads beyond it.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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15 Responses to Being held to ransom? Er, no.

  1. Carl.H says:

    Does the facts you speak of not show self preservation and self interest in that the rebels have a desire to go against Government but not so much as they wish to lose power ?

    • Lord Norton says:

      Carl.H: On some occasions, the rebels have been careful not to defeat the Government, although defeating the Government does not result in losing power unless the vote is one of confidence. Between 1972 and 1979, there were 65 Government defeats in the House of Commons, but only that on 28 March 1979 (on a vote of confidence) resulted in the Government losing power.

  2. Croft says:

    While it is the last occasion I’m not sure any minority government is necessarily a guide for any other as they all have their different circumstances. I think also that politics has become less viscerally tribal since the 70s to the extent that loyalty is as we have recently discussed less certain and members generally more likely to vote against their party. If Cameron had won by 5-10 then the ability of the right to inflict defeats would be real. Lab exploited the Tories on Europe in the 90s and Major’s G was in perpetual crisis. The numbers on a small Tory government would seem to allow a very determined group of the Eurosceptics to act; with on the basis of the above assumption not enough LDs to counter it.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Croft: MPs since the 1970-74 Parliament have become far more willing than before to vote against their own side. We are now witnessing dissent on a scale not witnessed since the 1974-79 Parliament (and unprecedented in terms of the first session of a Parliament). Labour MPs voted against the Wilson/Callaghan Government in some numbers and on frequent occasions, yet had little impact for the reasons I give. The experience of the Major Government bears out my argument, since what was remarkable was how few times it was defeated. The experience of the present Parliament also rather bears out my point when one looks at the divisions witnessing dissenting votes. Conservative MPs have tended to rebel on constitutional issues and Liberal Democrats on domestic policy. There has been little or no coming together.

      • Croft says:

        I’m not sure you can read across the voting in the coalition as with the voting in a hypothetical bare majority government. We also have to factor in the consequence of the upcoming changes with confidence votes not triggering an election which was one of the most effective tools major had and probably responsible for wins on certain votes.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Croft: a hypothetical bare majority government?

      • Croft says:

        I meant comparing the voting pattern now -v- a circumstance of the Tories having won the election with a majority (only excluding SF)

      • Lord Norton says:

        Croft: In the event of a Conservative Government with an overall majority, we would not have seen the introduction of the legislation creating problems (referendum on AV, fixed-term parliaments) but rather measures promised in the manifesto and already worked on by officials. We also know that in the first session of a Parliament under a new Government, Government back-benchers tend to be highly supportive of Government – no reason not to be – producing low levels of dissent.

      • Croft says:

        I’m less convinced than you that a majority a couple would be defendable against the opposition without major concessions to keep the backbenchers in line (can we be sure how many Tories who defied the tuition fees whip would have voted differently in a tighter vote?) I rather thought the Tories would have been too aware of the Major legacy that scraping wins in votes in measure after measure is politically toxic.

      • Lord Norton says:

        Croft: The 1992-97 Parliament was not a new Parliament under a new Government – the party had been in power for thirteen years – and during the course of the Parliament the Government’s overall majority dwindled, courtesy of by-election losses and the ‘whipless nine’; indeed, for a time, there was no formal overall majority.

  3. Gar says:

    Callaghan was a pretty low sort of reactionary though at the best of times,whilst feigning socialist views.

  4. ladytizzy says:

    How much impact does the style of a gvt make ie kitchen/sofa vs Cabinet, or are such term reserved for the press to explore?

    • Lord Norton says:

      ladytizzy: It may have a relevance in terms of how much Govermment operates in isolation. The sofa govermment of Tony Blair was isolated from Cabinet, never mind Parliament.

  5. ladytizzy says:

    …for David Cameron, ‘coalition has let him go to bed without having nightmares…

    Confirmed by Mr Cameron today: he has been watching the Ashes.

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