Young Tory Rebels - What's Driving Them?
Last week MPs were offered a rare treat - a free vote. One where they weren't told how to behave by the whips in their party, and where they were expected to decide on their own personal conscience. The vote itself was on changes to independent counselling on abortion, and was rejected by a hefty margin.
Free votes in the House of Commons only happen about once a year, if that. They're almost always on ethical issues like capital punishment, or laws governing sex, reproduction or animals. The rest of the time MPs are told how to vote in a document sent to them before each vote by their party's whips.
Tory MP David Nuttall, elected last year, doesn't see things quite like that. "Every vote is a free vote for me," he told Huffington Post UK, in his small office at Westminster on the day of the abortion vote. He supported Nadine Dorries' amendment to introduce independent counselling. "I put on my blog that I will be voting for the amendment, I'm not a hard-liner on this, I just take the view that there is a conflict of interest on this."
Unlike many MPs he employs no staff at Westminster at all. "They're all up in the constituency," he says, adding that's where he'd rather be, most of the time.
"Of course, all MPs say the same thing. The public understandably think you're only at work when you're in Westminster. But you get some folk who see you in the constituency and say you should be in Westminster, and then you get others who complain you're never in the constituency, so you can't win as an MP."
David Nuttall is the most rebellious Tory among the new intake, according to research carried out by the University of Nottingham. Nuttall has apparently defied the government whip 54 times since the election. But Nuttall insists those figures can't be judged by themselves.
"Yes I have voted independently a lot, but my voting record is very high," says the former solicitor who now represents Bury North on a 2,300 majority. "I've voted on almost every Commons vote, far more than the average," he insists. Indeed his profile on the Commons scrutiny site Theyworkforyou.com suggests he's participated in 97% of commons votes. Far more than some more high-profile MPs, who as Huffpost UK reported last week, seem to spend more time Tweeting than voting.
The second most rebellious new Tory is Andrew Percy, who's defied the whip 23 times, by all accounts. The former comprehensive school teacher now represents Brigg And Goole in Yorkshire - a seat he fully expects to be abolished in the boundary changes to be announced this week.
"I replaced a Labour MP who was slavishly loyal to the whip, and I always said during my campaign to get elected that I'd be a strong independent voice. That's still the tagline I use on all my literature now."
For Percy, the popular notion of party whips constantly putting pressure on rebels is over-stated. "I think they kind of write some people off, eventually. There's a couple of occasions on stuff I've voted against where nobody's contacted me either before or after the vote to express their displeasure.
"The one time when the whipping was hardest was on tuition fees. I got quite a lot of pressure there, although that came from other directions. Some were colleagues who want to climb the greasy pole themselves, but also from ministers. I was asked to go and see the prime minister who was actually very reasonable about it."
Is it a co-incidence that the two most rebellious Tories in the new intake are both northern? Andrew Percy thinks not.
"What's quite funny is that on the tuition fees vote, four of the six Tory rebels were from Yorkshire, despite the fact that as a region we contribute a very small number of Tory MPs. That was quite telling. Probably we're a different breed. There are a few careerists, but most Tory MPs I know from the north tend to have more of a background in local government and winning in tough circumstances. So I guess you have to be a bit more conscious of your constituents' views."
Even though Andrew Percy may never get to contest his seat again because of the boundary changes, he's cautious about declaring his opposition to the looming cull of MPs, even though it seems likely to adversely affect many Tories in the north of England.
"My seat is probably 100% likely to be abolished. My argument is that you can't really agree the principle - as I do - in the equalisation of constituency sizes. I suppose you can't really say you agree with that and then once they abolish your seat start opposing it. Although if they come up with some kind of completely stupid constituency boundaries map that totally and utterly ignores communities and creates mad constituencies with absolutely nothing in common it might be different.
"It's more a question for the Lib Dems. I think they'll be the ones most likely to cause trouble."
So will these two MPs continue to defy the whip once Parliament resumes properly after party conference season? David Nuttall thinks there will probably will be issues he'll rebel on:
"There is nothing at the moment that I have said to the whips, look, I won't be on with you on this one, but we never know what the business of the House will be more than a few weeks or even days in advance, so there may be something where I say, 'this is not Conservative, we shouldn't be doing this sort of thing. I dare say that there will be issues, and I'll deal with them in the same way as in the first year."
Andrew Percy expects to find himself on the 'wrong' side of the division lobbies again in the future. "Where there is frustration from our members it certainly is around Europe and the Human Rights Act. We were very clear when getting elected that the Human Rights Act was going to go. It's one of those totemic issues for a lot of our people, but it's a red line issue for the Lib Dems so it won't."
But Percy is adamant that his acts of rebellion haven't just been on Lib Dem coalition promises. Far from it, he says.
"My objection to government policies has never been around whether they're Lib Dem influenced in any way. In fact a lot of mine are quite the opposite, so I don't buy into the idea that the Lib Dem tail is wagging the dog. But our members are very unhappy on Europe and the Human Rights Act, as they are on sentencing, which is something else I voted against. That's very much Ken Clarke's proposal, that's not Lib Dem-influenced. But I and the vast majority of my constituents think we've got it wrong on sentencing, that's why I voted against the Bill and will continue to do so."