Dr Andrew Defty

Dr Andrew Defty

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Dr Andrew Defty is a leading political commentator with expertise in parliament, welfare and security policy. Andrew is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Lincoln’s School of Social and Political Sciences and the programme leader for BA (Hons) Politics. He can regularly be seen making contributions to national and local media on pressing political issues, ranging from voting in the Eurovision song contest to House of Lords reform.


There is an axiom in politics that, when managing their own party, Prime Ministers need to accommodate three groups of MPs: those who are Ministers; those who want to be Ministers; and those who have been Ministers, but are now sitting on the backbenches.

In general it has been the latter group which has tended to cause the most difficulty, while Prime Ministers have usually been able to rely on the support of the those who have been rewarded with a Ministerial position, and even more so those backbenchers who still aspire to Ministerial office.

The recent defections of Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, however, suggests a shift in this delicate balance. The Prime Minister is now facing disloyalty from those who in the past have traditionally been loyal. Both Carswell and Reckless are backbench Conservative MPs, and relatively recent arrivals in the House of Commons; the kind of MPs on whom the Prime Minister should be able to rely for support.

Their actions highlight a number of problems facing the Prime Minister in the run-up to next year’s general election. In the past, even for the most outspoken or disloyal of backbench MPs the options have been fairly limited, either exile on the backbenches or stepping down and seeking power elsewhere, the devolved assemblies or local government, for example.

Will there be more? Those who have been too close – or even apologists for – Carswell or Reckless are likely to be viewed as perhaps the most likely to jump ship. However, they are not the only ones. The possibility of moving from the backbenches to the front pages will almost certainly be appealing to others, particularly if they think they can hang onto their seats. There will be a number of Conservative MPs now considering whether their best chance of remaining in Parliament lies with Nigel Farage and not David Cameron.

Aside from the rise of UKIP, one of the reasons that Cameron has found it so difficult to maintain the support of some of his backbenchers is that he has less to offer than previous Prime Ministers. In the past, a combination of threats and rewards have usually been enough to bring recalcitrant MPs back into line.

Telling recently elected MPs that they have no chance of Ministerial office, as Cameron apparently did to Reckless, can, however, backfire dangerously. Another problem that Cameron has faced throughout this Parliament is that sharing power with the Liberal Democrats has meant that the number of Ministerial positions available to the Prime Minister to reward loyal MPs has been more limited.

The rise of UKIP, however, has given disgruntled Conservative backbenchers with little hope of Ministerial office, an opportunity make waves and quite possibly to remain in Parliament. By switching parties, Douglas Carswell suddenly looks like a big fish in a small pond. Rather than being a relatively obscure backbencher, he is now the UKIP frontbench. For some on the Conservative benches this may now seem likely an attractive prospect.

This is not a problem which is likely to go away. If the Conservatives lose the general election and, as is widely expected, UKIP win a small number of seats, defection to Farage’s party may well continue to look like an attractive option. If the Conservatives only win enough seats to form another coalition government, with anyone but UKIP, Cameron (or his successor) will be forced to share the spoils of victory again, with the risk of an ever-growing number of frustrated Conservative backbenchers left thinking they have been passed over for Ministerial office.

A further danger for the Prime Minister lies in shifting his party further to the right in order to militate the threat from UKIP. While such a move may prevent further defections, it is likely to alienate others within his party who are already concerned about the direction of policy. This group is largely comprised of MPs, such as Dominic Grieve and Ken Clarke, who have held Ministerial office under Cameron but are now sitting on the backbenches.

While they are unlikely to defect, as noted above, disgruntled ex-Ministers are often responsible for the most savage and wounding attacks. Moreover, the possibility of the Liberal Democrats walking out of the coalition and seeking to salvage something from what will almost certainly be a disastrous general election for them, also increases the nearer we get to next May.

In seeking to prevent further damaging defections in the run up to next year’s general election the Prime Minister must walk a fine line if the Conservative Party or the coalition is not to implode.

Dr Andrew Defty is a leading political commentator with expertise in parliament, welfare and security policy. Andrew is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Lincoln’s School of Social and Political Sciences and the programme leader for BA (Hons) Politics. He can regularly be seen making contributions to national and local media on pressing political issues, ranging from voting in the Eurovision song contest to House of Lords reform.

On becoming Conservative leader, David Cameron deliberately sought to distance the party from its Thatcherite legacy by stressing a commitment to a more compassionate Conservatism which recognised the social costs of poverty and social breakdown.

In perhaps his most public disavowal of Thatcher’s legacy he responded to her famous epithet that ‘there is no such thing as society’ by declaring that ‘there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state.’

However, Margaret Thatcher remains a talismanic influence on the current Conservative Party, and there are strong grounds for arguing that Thatcher’s ideas and policies hold more sway in the party today than in the 1980s. This is perhaps not surprising.

Few members of Thatcher’s Cabinets would have described themselves as Thatcherite. As contemporaries of Thatcher they were influenced by earlier ideas such as One Nation Conservatism and as several former Cabinet Ministers have observed this week, Thatcher was forced to accommodate a diverse range of Conservative thinking, much of which did not chime with her own, with prominent positions particularly in her early Cabinets, for so-called ‘Wets’.

In contrast, many members of the current Conservative Parliamentary Party were profoundly influenced by the Thatcher years. It is worth bearing in mind that the average age of the current Cabinet is 52, which means that most Cabinet Ministers came to political maturity during the Thatcher years.

David Cameron was thirteen when Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, and the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, famously shared a platform with Thatcher at the 1977 Conservative Party conference, aged just sixteen.

Moreover, whilst many observers have this week stressed the divisive nature of the Thatcher governments, one might argue that the policies of the current government and the attitudes within today’s Parliamentary Conservative Party go some way beyond those of the Thatcher years.

While Thatcher undoubtedly sought to roll back the state with significant cuts to public expenditure and provision, the current government is cutting far more quickly and more deeply than the first Thatcher government.

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

Radical and sweeping structural changes to public services in Britain, particularly the NHS, did not come about until Thatcher’s third term. Moreover, while the real term value of benefits fell under Thatcher, cornerstones of the benefits system such as universal child benefit remained intact.

The current government’s movement away from universalism is arguably a more significant break from the post-war consensus than changes introduced under Thatcher. The current government has also introduced significant changes to disability benefits which were introduced in the Thatcher years, and which the Chancellor George Osborne criticised for “parking” too many people on benefits.

Even on the issue of Europe which has been a running sore for the Conservative Party for decades, while Thatcher’s Euroscepticism undoubtedly contributed to her downfall as Party leader, she was responsible for signing the Single European Act in 1987, and provided a strong voice against federalism and for, what she perceived to be, Britain’s interests within Europe.

Motivated in part by domestic concerns, David Cameron’s promise to seek a referendum on EU membership, in which he may very well end up campaigning to leave, arguably represents a more significant change in Britain’s posture on Europe than anything witnessed under Thatcher or Major.

Researchers at the University of Lincoln have undertaken extensive research on MPs’ attitudes in the 1980s, in the Blair years, and in the current Parliament, which indicates significant similarities between the current intake of Conservative MPs and those interviewed in the 1980s, which may represent a hardening of attitudes since Cameron became leader.

While many Conservative MPs believed the Party has moved on since the 1980s, particularly in its attitudes towards poverty and social exclusion, there has been a strong resurgence in perceptions about the ‘deserving and undeserving poor’ which was less evident amongst Conservative MPs interviewed when Cameron first became leader in 2004.

David Cameron in Lincoln in 2011

In addition, a number of Conservative MPs now make a distinction between the ‘deserving and undeserving disabled’ which was not the case in the 1980s. Many Conservative MPs interviewed in the 1980s were aware of the danger that the Party’s attitudes to welfare would be unpopular and tempered their criticism of those in receipt of benefits accordingly.

In contrast, Conservative MPs interviewed in the current parliament were unabashed in their criticism of some of those in receipt of benefits. Indeed, many Conservative MPs today, including those on the front bench, publicly use the kind of language to describe benefits recipients which previous cohorts of Conservative MPs were reluctant to use even in private.

Along with the genuine affection for their former leader, there is widespread belief within the current Conservative Party that in many areas the Thatcher governments got it right. This is in part based upon a rather narrow view of Conservative policies and thinking in the Thatcher years.

However, if the Conservative Party is swept along by a wave of nostalgia in the wake of Baroness Thatcher’s death, there is a real danger than Cameron will find it increasingly difficult to persuade the public that the party has moved on.

Dr Andrew Defty is a leading political commentator with expertise in parliament, welfare and security policy. Andrew is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Lincoln’s School of Social and Political Sciences and the programme leader for BA (Hons) Politics. He can regularly be seen making contributions to national and local media on pressing political issues, ranging from voting in the Eurovision song contest to House of Lords reform.