Has it become harder for the government to control Parliament?

Since 1997

Labour governments under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, 2001–10. During Blair’s second and third terms, Labour backbenchers rebelled against the government on over 20 per cent of all divisions. Some of these rebellions were very large. On 64 occasions, 40 or more Labour MPs voted against the government, including major rebellions on high-profile issues, such as foundation hospitals (involving 65 MPs), university ‘top-up’ fees (72), the Iraq War (139) and the replacement of Trident nuclear submarines (94).

• Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition under David Cameron, 2010–15. This was the most rebellious parliament since 1945. In its first four years, Coalition rebellions occurred in 37 per cent of divisions, with no fewer than 159 Conservatives (52 per cent of the parliamentary party) and 42 Liberal Democrats (74 per cent of the parliamentary party) defying the party whip at one time or another. The major issue over which backbenchers revolted was relations with the European Union.

Conservative government under David Cameron, 2015–16. Significant backbench pressure forced the Cameron government into making U-turns on at least 24 policies. Among the policies abandoned were the proposal that all schools should become academies, cuts to tax credits, and pension tax relief reform. In addition, the Cameron government was defeated three times, most memorably in March 2016 on the proposed deregulation of Sunday trading rules.

• Conservative government under Theresa May, 2016–17. The May government continued the practice of Cameron, in seeking to head off backbench restiveness by modifying or reversing policies before they provoked open revolt and possibly led to parliamentary defeat. This is a tactic commonly employed by governments with slim majorities, which cannot afford to stand up to significant backbench pressure. Examples of policy ‘rethinks’ in these circumstances under May included the commitment in January 2017 to publish a White Paper on the government’s Brexit plan just days after ministers had ruled out this step; the promise in February 2017 to give MPs and peers a vote on the Brexit deal negotiated with Brussels before it is due to come into effect; and, most embarassingly, the withdrawal of the National Insurance hike for the self-employed one week after it had been announced in the March 2017 Budget.

Conservative government under Boris Johnson 2019-Thirty-eight Conservative rebels backed an amendment to end Huawei's participation in the 5G network project by the start of 2023.Despite promises from the government of a new bill to address their concerns, rebel MPs pushed their plan to a vote.But with a large Commons majority, the government defeated it by 24 votes

Has it become easier or harder for the executive to control Parliament?

Party Discipline and Elective Dictatorship

Harder for the Government to Control Parliament

The last decade has seen an increased number of rebellions in the Commons. Although governments rarely lose legislation in votes in the Commons, they do withdraw bills on which they fear defeat, or make an issue a free vote.

Government has accepted restrictions on the exercise of certain prerogatives, such as the right to authorise military action. Even if this is not legally binding an important precedent has been set. The Fixed Term

Parliaments Act has removed the PM's power to choose the date of a general election.

The creation of the Backbench Business Committee in 2010 gives backbench MPs more control over the choice of topics for debate, airing issues that might otherwise have been neglected.

Select committees have grown in status due to the decision to allow MPs to elect their chairs, and their powers have increased.

The increasing assertiveness of the House of Lords has led to several government defeats. No single party controls the Lords, making management of the House more difficult. Cross-benchers have become increasingly important.

It's still easy for the Government to control Parliament

The power of the whips, and the inducements of prime-ministerial patronage, remain important tools of government. Including parliamentary private secretaries, the government can call on an extensive 'payroll vote' of about 100 MPs. With a secure majority it is hard to defeat a government in the Commons.

Government retains a number of powers including the right, used increasingly in recent years, to change laws using secondary legislation

Government controls the greater part of the legislative schedule. The limited amount of time allocated to Private Member's Bills, and to debates selected by the opposition parties, supports this point.

Ministers can still obstruct select committees from summoning officials to their hearings, and they do not have to act on their reports.

The Lords usually defers to the will of the elected House after a period of 'parliamentary ping-pong'. The Salisbury convention protects a government's manifesto commitments.

The Parliament Acts are available to help governments overcome persistent opposition from the Lords.