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When backbenchers find their voice: Why it’s important to listen and what it means for the how policy is made

Words by:
Director
October 2, 2020

Reaction to the Internal Market Bill and Covid restrictions on the Conservative backbenches can offer us insight into the internal politics of the Party and, most importantly, inform how organisations input into policymaking.

Frustration bubbles up from the blue

The Prime Minister’s decision to table a piece of legislation that would allow the Government to break the law in a ‘specific and limited way’ without any form of consultation united tribes within the Conservative Party that have been at loggerheads for years.  From dark blue to bright blue – condemnation came to the surface from across the breadth of the Conservative political spectrum.

The Bill passed its third reading in the Commons earlier this week with a majority of 84 – more than the Government’s majority of 80.  A storm in a Westminster teacup, you could argue.  Not so.

The very public rebellion of lifelong loyalists, like Theresa May, Sir Graham Brady, Geoffrey Cox and Sir Charles Walker, in the early stages of the Bill’s progress; and their decision, along with 18 others to not vote on Tuesday, shows that these Conservative backbenchers do not like being taken for granted.

Fast forward a day to the dressing down Matt Hancock received from Sir Charles Walker, former vice chairman of the 1922 Committee, upon being informed that MPs would be given just 90-minutes to debate the renewal of the Coronavirus Act, and you have further illustration that tempers are running very high with an administration only a year in.

This does not mean that the Johnson Government is quaking in its boots for fear of upsetting its backbenchers and it does not mean that the Government is about to fall.  For all the hullabaloo in the newspapers, let’s remember the Government has a majority of 80 and the next election is four years away.

The very fact that the Government has such a sizeable majority arguably makes it easier for Conservative MPs to rebel without fear of mortally wounding their own side, and it is notable that it was the ‘old guard’ that did not vote at third reading.  Those MPs hoping for a phone call inviting them into Number 10 on the day of the next reshuffle did not put their heads above the parapet but instead went through the aye lobby, even if they expressed disquiet in private.

With that sense of perspective understood, it is fair to say that there is a growing sense of frustration on the Conservative backbenches with a Government that does not automatically consult on big ticket issues.  Where this goes and how it ends depends, in large part, on how the Government chooses to handle the situation.

Lessons from history – don’t push it

There is the potential for the Government to continue pushing forward with its fait accompli approach and for frustrations to multiply and solidify.  In such a scenario we can expect the number of backbenchers prepared to rebel to increase as party discipline breaks down.  Should a ‘devil may care’ attitude take hold on the backbenches, it will make life harder for the Prime Minister to push through his more controversial plans over the next four years.  Changes to planning laws would be just one example where we could see another flare up between Downing Street and the green benches concerned to protect the greenbelt.

“Changes to planning laws would be just one example where we could see another flare up between Downing Street and the green benches concerned to protect the greenbelt.”

If history tells us anything it is that Government backbenchers can eventually be pushed too far and that leaders who test loyalty too often will eventually come unstuck. Most British Prime Ministers in the last 30 years have suffered an unexpected defeat in Parliament shortly before their political downfall, either at the hands of their political colleagues or at the ballot box.

What this means for policy making and campaigns

It’s all to play for.

Yes, bandwidth in Westminster and Whitehall is taken up almost entirely with the Covid response and Brexit preparations, but attention will soon turn to recovery and renewal.  The Government knows that it must show it is making progress against its levelling up agenda and delivering on Brexit promises.

It cannot do this alone. It needs its backbenchers to stay onside if it wants to push ahead at the speed necessary to build up a head of steam ahead of the next general election.  This Prime Minister cannot rely on the fissions of the Labour Party that helped him 2019 and backbenchers can only be tested to a point. To this end we should expect to see a step change in the Government’s approach to communicating with its backbenchers with greater emphasis on consultation.

Any organisation looking to engage with the policy making process may want to consider these three things when designing their campaign:

  • Whips and PPSs are redoubling efforts to listen to the chatter of the tea rooms – physical and virtual – and to quell early signs of unrest. Even a small number of MPs united on an issue can be enough to draw the attention of a minister keen to keep his or her copy book clean of controversy.  You should know which parliamentarians are going to be most interested in your campaign, and most prepared to act.

 

  • Senior figures on the backbenches are being man-marked to cascade messages from Number 10 down through the ranks, while rising stars – loyal to Johnson as the Prime Minister who saw them elected – are being given opportunities to shine for the Government. You should know who these figures are and what motivates them.

 

  • Patronage is one of the Prime Minister’s most useful tools and it is likely to be used by Boris Johnson at the point when Downing Street believes the country is emerging from treatment to recovery as a signal of a shift in emphasis. Ministers who have absorbed the most flack during the pandemic are likely to be put on R&R while MPs who have held their counsel and who are fighting fit will be rewarded.  You should think ahead to how your campaign would be impacted by a change in minister and be prepared to respond.

 

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