Safety in numbers
I always hate being out-anoraked, but Nottingham University's Commons watcher, Phil Cowley has done it again, with this post on the Ballots and Bullets blog.
He sets out the unpromising history of efforts to reform the Lords over recent decades and the even-more unpromising arithmetic confronting the government whips for tonight's programme motion vote (see blogs passim).
Lurking in Portcullis House this morning, latte in hand, it was easy to spot the rebels - they were pink-cheeked and bright eyed, and thoroughly enjoying themselves. I didn't spot any whips on the prowl, still less any tearful rebels being given Chinese burns in dark corners.
There's safety in numbers, and the Conservative leadership, and more particularly their whips office, simply can't afford to excommunicate vast chunks of their parliamentary party, so the rebels calculate that nothing too severe can be done to those of them who're not members of the government. Of course, the odd PPS may have to quit… but they need not expect too long a career setback.
Some MPs doubtless calculate that, in any event, rebellion on this issue would play well with the party faithful outside Westminster, when the time comes to select candidates for the new-look parliamentary constituencies due to be created next year.
The stream of stories in the Sunday papers and news programmes featuring particular MPs nailing their rebel colours to the mast, and the letter on Monday in which over 70 announced their intention to defy the whip, demonstrate firm intent. Any of the named MPs who now go back on their word will suffer a, possibly fatal, credibility implosion. Old Labour whips recall going into a vote on hospital funding in the Blair years, with 107 declared rebels at the start of the day - and paring that back to a non-fatal 20, come the actual vote. But their whips were trying. Are the Tory whips really pulling out all the stops?
Which brings us to the implications for the coalition. Nick Clegg has delivered the vote on plenty of measures his troops really didn't like; if he thinks the Conservatives have soft-pedalled their whipping this time, then poison will seep into the heart of government. And the Lib Dems will be out for revenge.
Of course, they won't collapse the coalition and expire at the polls with a Judean Peoples' Front-style cry of "Urrg! That showed them!" But they will bide their time...
So how about this for a scenario? In a few months' time, the Joint Parliamentary Committee on banking will report. If what it proposes on banking regulation is too strong for the Conservatives, might the Lib Dems link up with Labour, and push it through, anyway? Put the Tories on the wrong side of a banker-bashing vote?
Just a thought.