Rebel Tory MPs were celebrating a major victory after they launched a highly effective operation, involving unofficial whips, which forced David Cameron and Nick Clegg to drop a programme motion for the House of Lords reform bill.
The rebels, many of whom are hostile to the Liberal Democrats, intensified the pressure on the government by warning that the coalition will lose its authority if ministers press ahead with the bill.
Bernard Jenkin, the Tory chairman of the House of Commons public administration committee, told MPs: “Can I commend the government for the wisdom of its decision? But whatever moral authority this bill had it has now lost. The authority of the coalition will be undermined if it proceeds with a bill [for] which it is unable to obtain [support].”
The rebels were focusing their praise on Jesse Norman, a former adviser to George Osborne and one of the party’s main intellectuals, who has jeopardised his chances of a ministerial career by running the rebel operation. His group of MPs, dubbed the “Sensibles”, ran a classic whipping operation from Norman’s office in the Portcullis House wing of parliament. Norman, elected to parliament at the last election who characterised himself as a “constitutional loyalist”, was supported by longer serving MPs such as David Ruffley.
One veteran Tory said: “It was a very impressive operation. Jesse ran it with great discipline. But they were brave because they were risking future ministerial careers.”
The rebels scoffed at suggestions by Downing Street that David Cameron would use the pause in the bill to try and win round more Tory MPs before the government tries to revive the measure in the autumn. “What is David Cameron going to do,” one veteran asked. “Is he going to spend the summer telephoning 100 Tory MPs to change their minds?”
David Davis, the former shadow home secretary, told Channel 4 News: “I can’t see why it should change. This story will be the same in September as it is now. When they bring a programme motion or a guillotine motion in September, if they do, it will get defeated again. So all they are really doing is prolonging the evil day.”
One loyal Tory MP said that the prime minister might succeed because the rebels object to the bill on different grounds. Some want to damage the Lib Dems, others are wary of the pace of reform while others simply object to the idea of a mainly elected second chamber. But the MP added: “This issue of course is visceral for many colleagues who will probably not budge.”
Downing Street was insisting that the prime minister, who persuaded Clegg to drop the programme motion to give him a chance to win over Tory colleagues, genuinely believes that he can persuade some of the more moderate rebels. Well placed Tory sources said that in the less pressurised atmosphere of the summer recess tempers may cool on all sides.
“There was some unhelpful and idiotic briefing from Nick Clegg’s office over the weekend that raised the temperature,” one Tory said. This was a reference to the interview by Richard Reeves, Clegg’s former strategy director, who said that the Liberal Democrats would be prepared to withdraw their support for Cameron’s plan to reduce the commons if the prime minister failed to deliver his MPs.
But some ministers said Downing Street should be nervous that so many Tory MPs from across the party were prepared to rebel. On the traditional wing there were the likes of Bernard Jenkin who has been a long term critic of the coalition. But the driving force behind the rebellion were members of the 2010 intake, who account for 49% of the parliamentary party, who are normally loyal to No 10 and who recently challenged the likes of Jenkin in elections to the 1922 committee.
Paul Goodman, the former Tory frontbencher who is now editor of the ConservativeHome website, wrote of his surprise that new MPs, many of whom have been tipped for high ministerial office, were prepared to confront the prime minister on such a sensitive coalition issue so directly. He highlighted three MPs: Jesse Norman, Nadhim Zahawi and Penny Mordaunt.
Goodman wrote: “Older MPs such as Eleanor Laing and Oliver Heald, who were active in helping to lead the group, care about the constitution and think about it deeply. But I am most struck by the courage of younger backbenchers who have their careers in front of them, have every prospect of being ministers, and have chosen none the less to take the course that they believe to be right.
“Parliament means party, and party means whip – which, to uphold the coherence of party, backbenchers must usually follow. But not always. In the case of these three and others, consider their courage, honour their convictions.”
The presence of loyalists shows that the prime minister needs to be careful not to lose control of his party. Growing numbers of MPs, including loyalists, have been questioning the Downing Street operation after the recent U-turns over the budget.
Angie Bray, a loyalist who had threatened to resign as ministerial aide to the shadow cabinet office minister Francis Maude, was highly critical of the Lib Dems. “I don’t think they have helped themselves with blood curdling threats about withdrawing support for other constitutional reform of the House of Commons,” Bray told Channel 4 News. “So I do think the Liberal Democrats need to think very carefull about how they want the relationship to prosper.”
Stewart Jackson, who resigned as a ministerial aide to the Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson last October after rebelling against the government on whether to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, said: “An increasing number of people are very frustrated at the compromises that are necessary with coalition.”
The most immediate impact of the withdrawal of the programme motion will be on Cameron’s imminent ministerial reshuffle. Some aides said he had decided to delay this until the lords vote in the hope of using the possibility of promotion to entice waverers to fall into line.
The prime minister’s tactics failed, raising questions about how far his writ runs in the party. Cameron will now have to decide whether he will weaken or strengthen that authority by promoting new MPs whose threat of rebellion prompted a climbdown.
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