One defining feature of Parliament for the last eighteen years has been the size of the Government’s majority: the massive majorities of Tony Blair’s first two terms followed by the smaller, but still easily workable, majorities of Labour’s third term and the coalition.
This Government, by contrast, has a majority of just 12. In theory, that should make everything much more difficult for it. As Alex Harrowell has pointed out, getting anything through in that situation requires a much more different style of whipping than anything we’ve seen since 1997. When your majority is decently sized, you don’t have to worry too much about little groups of rebels or more mundanely if one of your MPs spends too long at a reception and doesn’t make a vote. Your majority can soak up hundreds of little blows like that, and it can even be good party management to allow people to blow off steam by rebelling.
With a majority that’s only just above single figures, you’re in a different game altogether. Half a dozen organised rebels can sink an entire bill and suddenly the whips’ office finds itself having to keep track of three hundred MPs, making sure that ministers don’t get sent too far from Parliament when a big vote is looming, while making sure that backbenchers are staying in the precincts of Westminster instead of getting home for an early night. One of the most important parts of the Major Government was the work his Chief Whips (Richard Ryder and Alastair Goodlad) and their teams had to do to keep everything going.
Even with a strong whipping operation that does get things through in close votes, the narrative changes. At the moment, the Tories are trying to present themselves as a hegemonic force in British politics, pushing through a series of controversial changes to not just change the law but to frame the discussion around them in their terms. They’re not acting like a party with just 37% of the vote and a slender majority in Parliament, and when Labour sit on their hands (like they did on last night’s welfare reform vote) that framing is allowed to go unchallenged. What should be a story of how the Government could only just get its proposals passed instead becomes one of Opposition disarray.
Given the general willingness of Tory MPs to be lobby fodder, the Government isn’t going to be damaged by a single close vote or even a defeat, but its ability to define the terms of political conversation can be progressively undermined by consistent Parliamentary opposition. John Major – who started with a larger majority than this – was made to look weak not by a single vote, but by a long series of narrow victories and constant stories of emboldened Tory rebels having to be bought off with concessions to get anything through Parliament. The story stopped being about ‘the Government is going to do X’ but instead became ‘what concessions will the Government have to give to get something vaguely resembling X through Parliament?’
In a situation like this, the prime task of the Opposition – and this applies to all the parties within it, not just Labour – is to create that pressure on the Government so it has to fight to get every vote through. (And even if it does get through the Commons, the Lords offers another tough challenge given its current makeup) There are faultlines in the Tories on just about every issue they want to push through Parliament, and if their whips have to start looking at every bill knowing there are 300 votes against them on it, things start getting tough both for the whips and for the backbench MPs who find themselves continually listening out for the division bell knowing that missing just one vote will give them a big black mark on their record.
The Tories are nowhere near as dominant as they’re pretending to be. Concerted pressure from the Opposition parties working together can both show that and thwart Tory attempts to define the political narrative.