Mark Stuart: The honeymoon has halted as coalition's rebels break ranks

ONE thing we've always known about this coalition Government is how strong it is at its centre. We only have to cast our minds back to those almost romantic scenes in the garden at Number 10 in May – when Nick Clegg and David Cameron gave their joint first press conference – to see just how close the two main coalition partners are.

They resembled a happy couple sharing their wedding (or should I say "civil partnership") vows. It was all sweetness and light.

However, unlike most governments in the post-war period, this Coalition has enjoyed only a short-lived honeymoon. Even as Cameron and Clegg stared happily into each other's eyes, there were plenty of "family" members on either side of the aisle, both among the Conservative and the Liberal Democrat MPs, who looked on aghast at what they regarded as a match made in hell.

With the help of my long-time colleague Professor Philip Cowley from the University of Nottingham, we have discovered that over half the votes in the House of Commons have seen some form of rebellion by coalition MPs. One thing we used to be able to say about every post-war Parliament is that at least a majority of votes in the Commons witnessed unity by government MPs. That is no longer the case.

It seems that one of the early consequences of this forced marriage between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives has been to provoke regular discontent on both wings of the coalition.

On the Conservative side, a total of 67 MPs have so far broken ranks, objecting to the Government's plans to introduce fixed-term parliaments and to hold a referendum in the spring on the Alternative Vote (AV) for Westminster general elections. These Conservatives regard such measures as nothing less than constitutional vandalism.

The top coalition troublemaker from Yorkshire is Philip Davies, Conservative MP for Shipley since 2005, who has cast no fewer than 18 votes against the party line, making him the joint second most rebellious coalition MP.

His Conservative colleague, David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) seems to be enjoying his reprised role as an independent-minded backbencher, defending civil liberties, while Andrew Percy, the new Tory MP for Brigg and Goole, is rapidly emerging as one of the leading Eurosceptics in this new Parliament.

On the Liberal Democrat side, 22 MPs have already voted against the party whips, a whopping 63 per cent of those backbenchers who don't hold government posts in the coalition.

One of the surprise rebels is David Ward, the new MP for Bradford East. Normally, new MPs stay loyal to the

Government in the hope of promotion, but Ward has

already voted against cuts to civil servants' pensions and the introduction of free schools. Leeds North West MP, Greg Mulholland is also fairly rebellious, and has promised to vote against the raising of the cap on student tuition fees.

As the public spending cuts begin to bite, the Liberal Democrats are increasingly bearing the brunt of the blame with the voters. One recent opinion poll put the Liberal Democrats on only nine per cent, some 14 points down on their showing in the election. While their MPs will probably cling closer together as things get even worse (they have no other realistic option), locally, Liberal Democrat councillors in places such as Hull, Sheffield and York are already wondering how long they can stay loyal to their national party.

These councillors will feel the full force of the cuts most acutely as the Liberal Democrats begin to haemorrhage support in next spring's local elections.

By contrast, the Conservatives can boast a poll rating of 40 per cent, neck and neck with Labour, a remarkable showing given the tough decisions they have had to make.

However, David Cameron should not rest easy. His backbenches contain a large number of new MPs, many of them strongly Eurosceptic, who will find it difficult to get promoted into the lower ranksof Government partly because of the need to keep happy their Liberal Democrat coalition partners. Many of these new MPs will be defending paper-thin majorities at the

next election.

Their loyalty to the party nationally will be stretched to breaking point as they see local services cut in their constituencies.

The good news for David Cameron and Nick Clegg is that Liberal Democrat and Conservative rebels rarely join forces on the same issues. Nor has there been an occasion where disgruntled Liberal Democrats and Tories have joined forces with the Labour Opposition to threaten the Government's majority, at least not yet.

So, although Cameron and Clegg are still very much the happy couple, they will be acutely aware that they have a growing number of angry relatives on either side of the coalition that, over time, have the potential to wreck the long-term future of this most unlikely of political marriages.

THE TOP FIVE YORKSHIRE REBELS

1. Philip Davies

(Con: Shipley) 18 votes

2. David Ward

(Lib Dem: Bradford E) 8

3. David Davis

(Haltemprice and Howden) 7

4. Greg Mulholland (Lib Dem: Leeds NW) 4

5. Andrew Percy

(Con: Brigg & Goole) 4

Mark Stuart is a political historian from York who has written the biographies of John Smith and Douglas Hurd.

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