House of Cards: when your worst enemy is one of your own

by: in Law
law_blog prashant sabharwal house of cards

In the 1980s, in the heyday of Thatcherism, Scottish actor Ian Richardson starred in the leading role of Francis Urquhart in the BBC series House of Cards. In it, Urquhart, who starts out as the Chief Whip for the Conservative government led by Thatcher’s fictional successor, schemes against and manipulates his fellow MPs in order to emerge as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Indeed, it was this BBC version that provided the blueprint for the eponymous US Netflix drama that was all the rage during the Obama Years.

However, we do not have to look across the Atlantic to see the effects of intra-party dissent and intrigue on the effectiveness of a democratically legitimized executive. Indeed, the United Kingdom provides a rather interesting lesson on the power of constituencies, the phenomenon of whipping and the individualistic ethos that can lead to the sitting Prime Minister’s worst enemies frequently hailing from his own political party. When one starts considering the concept of intra-party dissent in the United Kingdom, a plausible point from which an analysis must proceed is the singularly powerful role of the Prime Minister.

Combining the roles of the head of the executive and leader of the governing party, the Prime Minister benefits from a range of features bestowed upon him by the traditionally flexible British constitutional arrangement. For one, by virtue of the First Past the Post electoral system, the Prime Minister’s party usually commands an outright majority in the House of Commons – thus negating the need for a coalition partner.

Under the British constitutional order, the Prime Minister enjoys vast powers of patronage: He can unilaterally hire and fire cabinet ministers at will, promote virtual unknowns to national stardom and with equal zeal destroy the careers of colleagues under pressure. His powers of patronage can tame intra-party critics, subjecting them to the concept of ministerial accountability, and thus defuse conflicts. The appointment of hard-right MP Jacob Rees-Mogg as Leader of the Commons comes to mind, as does the meteoric rise of Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and the fascinating fall and rise of Sajid Javid as Health Secretary – all within the administration of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The role of Deputy Prime Minister is emblematic for the powers of patronage to appease uneasy allies and quieten potential rivals: this role was bestowed upon both Michael Heseltine (under Prime Minister John Major) and Dominic Raab (under Prime Minister Boris Johnson). Government departments can be created as needed and be abolished as quickly – the most famous instance being the creation of the Brexit Department, which was terminated only 4 years after it first came into existence, and saw three Brexit Secretaries. The system of whipping also seeks to enforce tight party discipline, an objective that is met for much of a government’s parliamentary life. That said, there are faultlines that result in rebellions and defections nonetheless. For the Conservative Party, the most obvious faultline was Europe, whereas for Labour, it was the invasion of Iraq.

Nonetheless, there are those who prove immune to the charms of ministerial appointment. Much of this has to do with the aforementioned First Past the Post electoral system. It links the individual MP to an existing constituency – paradoxical as it may sound, despite his paramount role that belies the romantic notion of “first among equals”, the Prime Minister is indeed equal in one respect: He or she is just one of 650 MPs in the House of Commons. He does not enjoy an individual mandate from the entire nation, but merely his own constituency.

It is this simple fact that intra-party dissenters and rebels have known to use to great effect, causing considerable torment to successive governments led by Prime Ministers from both parties. Short of a fall from grace in their own constituency, such “difficult” MPs can undermine the government in various ways, create obstacles for a Prime Minister’s legislative agenda and essentially act as a sort of internal opposition to an otherwise unassailed administration. Methods vary from publicly opposing the party line to occasional divergence from the government’s preferred policy stance on issues of conscience to outright defiance of the sitting government on principal policy commitments. Unlike, for instance, in Germany, parliamentary votes are recorded and publicly accessible. Therefore, there exists a higher threshold in the United Kingdom when it comes to breaking from one’s own party – especially as there may be obvious consequences in terms of career advancement and influence. That said, party dissent does not have to spell the end for one’s own ambitions.

Examples are legion: Iain Duncan Smith formed part of the Maastricht Rebels, a section of the Conservative MPs who refused their consent for the ratification of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty – and thus undermined the authority of Prime Minister John Major, who had just been re-elected in spring 1992. So much did the Eurosceptic rebels damage Major’s authority that he felt compelled to vacate his leadership and stand for re-election (which he comfortably won against former Welsh Secretary John Redwood). This episode alone demonstrates the staying power of some intra-party rebellions: Duncan Smith was elected leader of the Conservatives in 2001 in a membership primary – in a twist of irony, he himself was repeatedly undermined by Europhiles within the Conservative Party (with many deliciously pointing out the hypocrisy of him calling for loyalty from his fellow MPs). He later re-emerged as Work and Pensions Secretary in David Cameron’s first government and was a leading campaigner for the country’s withdrawal from the European Union.

Redwood unsuccessfully stood for the leadership and was never rewarded with another ministerial appointment – but leveraged his failed bids for power into a prominent position on the right wing of the Conservative Party, something he used to torment the government of the instinctually centre-right Cameron. Indeed, it is arguable that the 2016 national referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union (and thus, Brexit) only resulted from pressure exerted upon Cameron’s second (majority) government by both competition from the hard right from outside the party, as well as well-organized, hardline Eurosceptics within the party.

Indeed, this level of organization among Eurosceptics also bedevilled Cameron’s successor. Theresa May was undermined as Prime Minister by the party’s right wing, organized in the European Research Group led by Rees-Mogg, thus contributing to her ignominous resignation as Prime Minister in 2019. Boris Johnson who had arguably been the backseat driver behind May’s exit, himself suffered a major rebellion by 21 Conservative MPs who voted for a bill forestalling the possibility of a No Deal Brexit.

The other side of the aisle also demonstrates that rebellions do happen, and can sometimes yield interesting results. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell were both seen as being firmly on the left wing of the Labour Party at a time when the increasingly centrist, free-market leadership of Prime Minister Tony Blair had rebranded Labour as New Labour. Just a few years after Blair’s resignation as Prime Minister in 2007 and the general election defeat of Gordon Brown in the 2010 election, Corbyn became Leader and McDonnell became Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, after a membership primary resulted in a leftward shift of the party. Another prominent example is George Galloway, who started out as a Labour MP from Glasgow and became one of the thorns in Tony Blair’s side, especially on the issue of Iraq. He ended up being expelled and formed Respect, a fringe left-wing party, of which he remained the only MP until 2015.

These examples alone demonstrate that the contrarians and rebels are not outcasts in the British political system – they are an essential part of it and, if they play their cards right, can rise to the top. That being said, a firm tradition of parliamentary discipline imposed by Chief Whips, the risks to ministerial aspirations (including those outside Cabinet), as well as party identification (which has led to increased polarization in recent years) and the need to project cohesion towards the broader public represent powerful deterrents against engaging in open dissent all too frivolously. Even with that in mind, dissenters are always a force to be reckoned with, a reality to be accepted by even the most powerful Prime Minister.

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