There was a time when Conservative MPs expressed their dissent sparingly and cannily. The fabled “Tory rebellion” was reserved for issues of particular moral pertinence or for irregular NIMBYism. Only very rarely did an MP calculate that political gain could be made through openly disparaging their own government.
Instead political careers were advanced through steady and consistent loyalty — performed in the parliamentary lobby and in front of the media. Whips were not merely another Whatsapp contact, but a person whose correspondence conveyed ominous foreboding. They carried a simple yet effective message: there is no path to power for a perpetual rebel.
But today the Conservative party is at odds with itself on a regular basis.
Only in the past few weeks, Sunak has faced “rolling rebellions” on everything from planning policy and onshore wind farms to his China stance and his post-Brexit positioning. No policy area is safe from the instinctively suspicious Conservative backbenches.
It is further evidence that we are entering a new phase of the Conservative psychodrama. Following a disastrously chaotic year which saw the party cycle through three PMs and hit new lows in the polls, MPs are feeling a deep sense of “fed-upness”. The result is a set of rebellions on multiple fronts, from multiple factions.
So much for a Sunak “honeymoon” period; Conservative division is here to stay.
Last week, No 10 was forced to pull a vote on the government’s flagship levelling up bill in the face of a rebellion from disgruntled backbenchers. In total, a humiliating 60 Conservative MPs, led by former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, signed an amendment which would strip the legislation of mandatory, centrally-set housing targets.
And this week, business secretary Grant Shapps prepared the ground for a U-turn over the government’s onshore wind ban — in what was widely viewed as a response to an amendment tabled by Simon Clarke. Clarke, who served as Truss’s levelling up secretary, wants to revise government guidance to allow for the further development of onshore wind.
Significantly, neither Clarke nor Villiers are natural rabble-rousers. Since 2019, Clarke has rebelled on one vote out of a possible 567; whereas Villiers has voted against her party on 5 occasions in the same timeframe out of 580 votes she attended.
Clarke’s new penchant for activism is probably borne out of a need for revenge. Unlike Therese Coffey, James Cleverly and several others implicated in the Trussonomics dream/nightmare (delete as appropriate), Clarke was cast to the backbenchers when Sunak entered No 10.
Once viewed as a rising star in the Conservative party, Clarke is plainly unhappy with his characterisation as a Trussite also-ran. He is hence employing all political capital he can muster from his 49-day stint at DLUHC to convene and lead a rebellion.
The counter rebellions
But Clarke’s political manoeuvres do not stop with onshore wind. He has also offered leadership to a burgeoning “counter rebellion” over the aforementioned housing target debate. Continuing where he let off at DLUHC, Clarke has warned Sunak not to kowtow to Theresa Villiers and her “NIMBY” naysayers on central planning mandates.
He wrote on Twitter: “If you want to see what the future of the Conservatives is when we don’t build homes, look at London. Our collapsing vote in the capital is at least in part because you can’t make the case for popular Conservatism if you can’t afford to buy, or even rent”.
He finished: “This isn’t rocket science – it’s economics and politics 101”.
Caught between a 60-strong “NIMBY” rebellion led by Villiers and a potentially stronger-still “YIMBY” entente coordinated by Clarke, Sunak now has very little room to manoeuvre. Having already pulled one vote on the levelling up bill, the prime minister may be forced to delay indefinitely — if only to avoid the damaging, and apparently addictive, dynamics of blue-on-blue bickering.
The nature of Clarke’s “counter rebellion” means Sunak cannot easily pivot in favour of Villiers and the NIMBYs. In fact, while Clarke’s intervention was professedly pro-Sunak in its commentary on policy, the move was designed to push the prime minister into a corner on planning. It was a veiled threat not to side with Villiers — lest he feel the wrath of Clarke’s YIMBY collective.
We can apply this same logic to the equally troublesome counter rebellion over the onshore wind issue, led by Conservative MP John Hayes.
Hayes has convened a force of 19 Conservative MPs to rebut Clarke’s pro-onshore wind amendment. With Shapps having walked back the government’s anti-onshore wind stance this week, Hayes wants the stance walked forward once more. As we see here, with no faction wanting to be outmanoeuvred, Conservative infighting has developed a deeply destructive cyclical dynamic.
The problem for Sunak is that the Conservative party does not contain one trigger-happy “awkward squad”, but many, of varying political stripes and ideological make-ups. For a prime minister who prided himself on being less divisive than Johnson or Truss, this is a serious setback.
Of particular concern to the prime minister, is that the rebellion, counter rebellion cycle creates opportunities for Labour to capitalise on disunity. Starmer has already signalled that he is prepared to back Clarke’s onshore wind amendment — a move that will significantly raise the stakes for Hayes’s counter-rebels and ask further questions of Sunak’s strategy.
But on planning targets, the Labour leader has extended a hand of support to the under-siege Sunak. This will mean that Villiers’ amendment will be defeated; however, it will having nothing to do with Sunak’s powers of persuasion — a fact that Starmer will be keen to stress.
Indeed, the Labour leader was already trialing this particular attack line at PMQs this week. Starmer said: “Every week he gets pushed around — and every week he gets weaker”.
An unwhippable party
Another problem for Sunak is that a number of his MPs are essentially unwhippable.
Clarke, for example, is an ex-Cabinet minister with little prospect of returning to the fold under Sunak. He is also the MP for a marginal Northern seat which, if current polling projections are anything to go by, looks set to turn Labour in 2024. This means that Clarke, who already has an axe to grind with the prime minister, has nothing to lose by rebelling.
The same is true for Theresa Villers, the ex-Northern Ireland secretary who holds a majority of just 1,212. What incentive does she have to toe the party line?
Ultimately, the mood within the Conservative party is deeply apathetic, and such feelings will only worsen after the disastrous Chester by-election. Now if the polls fail to rally — and rally quickly — the Conservative party will fall further into the cycle of rebellion and counter rebellion. There will be nothing “unifier-in-chief” Sunak can do.
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