Among the fallout of the tuition fees vote, as well as the Government majority being cut by 75% (hey, a cut we can all get behind) and the Lib Dems’ three-way scouse wedding, there was also a small but significant Tory rebellion.
(Update: David Davis speaks and strongly suggests that he’s acting as chief of the Tory hard right, angered at the very idea of coalition.)
What’s going on there? Tories rebelling against education cuts? The first interesting fact here is the kind of Tories involved. You might think the most likely rebels would be either the few survivors from the Ken Clarke tendency or perhaps David Cameron’s centrist A-listers, in so far as they have the power base to rebel at all. But the Tory rebels on this issue are drawn from the traditional hard right. This doesn’t make very much sense.
One argument is strategic. With a theoretical majority of 84, and more importantly a lock over about half the Lib Dems through the payroll vote, the chances of the Government actually losing the vote rather than just having a dramatic near-thing were real but not great. Therefore, an opportunity existed for the Tory right to demonstrate their ability to cause trouble - to show they have a credible deterrent capability. If they can show they have the discipline and the will to make things worse on a night like this, they can extract a price for not making trouble.
As with nuclear deterrence, part of the point is that you don’t actually want to let the nuke off, or cause the government to lose a major vote in the Commons. So this was a handy opportunity to express tribal Toryism, to bank a demonstration of strength for future use, and to give voice to the numerous Tories who don’t like the coalition as such. Note that Tim Montgomerie chose this week to launch a campaign for “Mainstream Conservatism” as opposed to “Liberal Conservatism”. This is an example of what the Cold War international relations theorists called the stability-instability paradox - if the superpower balance means that war is unlikely, this could actually encourage the superpowers and their clients to provoke each other at lower levels of conflict, in the confidence that nothing too awful would happen.
He may not have realised that in historical practice, Conservatism is always defined operationally as whatever the prime minister wants, in the opposite sense to Herbert Morrison’s remark that socialism is what the Labour Party does. The diehards didn’t derail MacMillan or Heath. Neither did the wets (who at one point named themselves Centre Forward, in a Montgomerie-esque bid to claim leadership of the majority) measurably divert Thatcher. The Eurosceptics caused John Major and William Hague endless trouble, but what did they achieve?
So far, the management of the other coalition, the one inside the Conservative Party, has been relatively quiet. This is because there is a stable deterrent balance - although the steel helmet faction can cause trouble, the Tory whips can counter-threaten to use Liberal votes to get their way. And the Tories have plenty of leverage over the Liberals, making this a credible threat.
In the long term, though, there is the possibility that this may become harder. After all, as Tim Montgomerie would no doubt point out, most Tories didn’t become Tories to see legislation passed with Liberal votes over the wishes of people like David Davis. As the Orange Book liberals get progressively more dependent on the Tories, paradoxically, the Tory leadership becomes more dependent on them and further from the Tory base.
In practice, these factors - stability-instability and Tory leadership-Liberal interdependence - are likely to play a key role in next spring’s referendum on electoral reform. A significant Tory opposition to it can be expected anyway, on the merits of the issue and out of self-interest, but this will very likely make it bigger.
That’s all very neat. It’s also true that a couple of the key rebels, notably David Davis and Lee Scott, had the benefit of a relatively poor background and may object to this cut on principle.