Some Conservatives describe it as almost a revolution on the quiet, one for which there are, so far, few consequences: an outbreak of Tory MPs who are not voting against the government, but simply not voting at all.
While 19 Tories rebelled, 67 recorded no vote. Many of these were absent for good reasons – the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, was in Dubai – but Conservative whips estimate that up to 30 did so without permission.
Similarly, when the Commons approved the government’s plan to block punishment for Owen Paterson after he broke lobbying rules – a plan reversed the next day – 13 Tory MPs rebelled but 97 didn’t vote. A Labour opposition day motion on second jobs for MPs last week saw four Conservatives support it and 71 not vote.
“You could say that absenteeism is my silent protest,” said one senior Tory backbencher. “Maybe I’m getting old and cynical, but you can see these unforced errors coming, and while I don’t want to vote with Labour, I also don’t want to have to be led up a hill and then down again when we U-turn.”
Backbenchers say some Conservative MPs have effectively started to “self-slip”, a reference to the “slip” system where whips give MPs permission to miss a vote, whether as part of a pair with the opposition member or not.
In recent weeks, some Tories have only informed whips at the very last minute, making calculations about what might happen in a vote hugely difficult.
“It’s part of a whip’s job to sit down and count up the numbers, but you get the sense they’re doing it more often than normal,” one MP said. “Last night, if the cabinet hadn’t come back [to vote] they could have been in quite a difficult place.”
The current crop of Tory MPs already have had a tendency to be unpredictable, whips say, particularly the 2019 intake who spent so many early months of lockdown away from parliament.
But the catalyst for a mass outbreak of non-compliance was the Paterson vote on 3 November, when dozens of Tories declined to back a plan to rip up MPs’ disciplinary measures to save one backbencher, while those who did support the government saw the plan then reversed.
One of the abstainers was Angela Richardson, a 2019-intake Tory who was sacked as parliamentary private secretary in the communities and levelling up department, only to be reinstated.
Richardson’s case “has done so much more damage to party discipline than the whips probably know”, said another Tory MP, who also arrived in 2019.
“People are thinking: if a PPS can do it and not face any consequences, and we’re probably going to U-turn anyway, what’s the point of us voting with the government? Why not let other people take the flak?”
Discipline had descended such that in the social care vote one Tory was seen going into the voting lobbies, talking to whips, and then walking out after failing to be convinced of the government’s case.
“The concern is we do all these things and then U-turn, so you might as well not bother voting,” the MP said. “And I think we’ll see a lot more. As far as I’m aware, most of those who don’t vote aren’t being dragged in front of the chief whip.”
In contrast, they added, amid a sudden panic about the social care vote, some supportive MPs who had been given permission to be somewhere else were then called back to Westminster: “If you’re good and stick with the government your slip gets cancelled, but if you abstain you can do what you like.”