Lazy clichés, as a general rule, are best avoided by political hacks and commentators. Yet the likening of the current coalition government to a marriage has been a constant theme for analysts of all creeds in the last two years, and it has never resonated quite as strongly as it did at the end of this parliamentary session. The shotgun wedding in the rose garden of Downing Street seems a distant memory, the iconic image of the blossoming personal relationship between Cameron and Clegg an unwelcome reminder of a better, more innocent time. The inevitability of messy divorce has been overwhelmed by genuine talk from prominent backbenchers of the coalition ending prematurely- before an election date of May 2015 that appeared etched into the political landscape. It is Cameron's extended family, the Conservative parliamentary party, that is the chief cause and bell weather of this unrest- and the relationship between Cameron and his parliamentary party shows signs only of disintegrating further. The presidential posturing of an Olympics
Nadine Dorries' proclamation that dissenting, rebellious voices from the Conservative benches opposing Lords reform came from beyond the 'usual suspects' was, perhaps somewhat uncharacteristically, perceptive- and also symptomatic of the current state of mind within the Conservative parliamentary party. Whether one views the coalition's issues on the House of Lords as time for stark recriminations, or as a welcome reprieve, clearly there are issues brewing for the Conservative front benches to which there is no easy solution- and that go beyond a climb-down on one House of Lords vote, however humiliating and damaging it may have been.
Over half of those who rebelled on the House of Lords programme motion, some 47 MPs, are new to parliament and have only known a resurgent and assertive Commons. Rebelling in parliament has been compared to losing one's virginity. The mythology behind rebelling is lost, the whole act is more straightforward than you imagined, and as a result you are far more likely to do it again- with an urge to do so as quickly as possible. To be a rebel without a cause is one thing, but to be a Conservative rebel opposing policies instigated by the 'Liberals' is quite another. To put the troubles of Cameron in some context, although Labour's last term in office was their most troublesome and record breaking in its own right, this current parliament is the most rebellious ever. As Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart of Nottingham University noted, there were more rebellions in the long 2010-12 parliamentary session that has just ended than there were in the six entire parliaments elected between 1945 and 1966. Now so many MPs have popped their cherry, particularly on the milestone rebellions on a European Referendum and the House of Lords, history suggests there will be trouble ahead.
One of the key foundations of studying parliamentary rebellions is that they tend to increase in regularity, strength and significance in the back-end of a parliament. MPs are meant to be at their most supine following a change of government- led by a wave of optimism and a desire to broadly align with the policy agenda they had recently campaigned upon. Yet clearly, those on the right of the Conservative party see little in the coalition's vision that resembles their political outlook. Yet Cameron has little room to shift policies to shore up support within his party, and the relatively sparse legislative programme for the next parliament will offer little to improve the relationship between Cameron and his party. Indeed as Liberal Democrat support continues to waver, and Nick Clegg's leadership appears likely to be increasingly challenged,
The concept of the 'career politician' is another well worn phrase, with people lamenting the sheep-like tendencies of the modern day MP. Yet even if that were to be true, Cameron has less to offer ambitious young MPs than any prime minister in recent history. So many positions in government, earmarked for promising prospective MPs and those not yet on the ministerial rung, were handed to Nick Clegg to disperse as he saw fit. Iain Dale, the influential Conservative blogger and commentator, has argued that there are probably a total of 30 Tory MPs with cabinet potential in the new intake. Patrick McLoughlin, Cameron's chief whip, appears to fit the traditional mould of a whip as a Great British pantomime villain- rather than adhering to a softly softly approach that may be more successful with disgruntled MPs with little to lose, but even less to gain from the current leadership.
It would be unwise to discount Cameron political deft touch, often possessed at opportune moments of crisis. But right now, a break from a rebellious party is what Cameron desperately needs- for it is that intra party relationship, between Cameron and his MPs, that appears most likely to break this coalition government.