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British government's lawmakers in rebellious mood

Sun 27, March 2016 Kategori Politics

It took a row over cuts to welfare payments for disabled people to remind observers of the fragility of Prime Minister David Cameron’s government.

The U.K.’s governing Conservative Party, widely referred as the Tory party or simply the Tories, occupies a prized position in British politics -- a government with a parliamentary majority facing a fractious opposition.

However, despite these advantages, the party has found itself shackled by internal divisions -- most of all over Britain’s continued membership of the European Union.

"No one does political violence quite like the Tories," journalist James Forsyth wrote Thursday in The Spectator, a right-leaning news magazine.

He added: "The danger for the Conservative Party is that… it is entering an era where the legitimacy of the leader is not accepted. This is bound to cause instability."

Forsyth’s analysis comes less than a year after Cameron hailed an era of political stability in Britain following five years of coalition government.

The Conservatives won a working majority of 17 in the 650-seat House of Commons in May’s general election -- a victory that confounded expectations of another coalition after commentators widely predicted no party would win enough seats to govern alone.

The party was boosted further when the main opposition Labour Party elected veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn in a move that estranged its moderate voters.

Cameron was able to argue that the Conservatives had become the party of the "center ground", the nominal space in British politics where politicians feel they can appeal to voters from both the left and right.

Chancellor George Osborne triumphantly declared at the party’s annual conference in October: "We are now the party of work, the only true party of labour. My message to today’s Labour Party is this: You head back to the 1980s; we’re heading forward. You listen to the few; we’ll govern for the many."

His speech was designed to strike at the hearts of Labour supporters who saw their party threatened by the Militant movement in the 1980s, marking an 18-year period of Tory rule.

Slim majority

However, the current Conservative government is far from entirely stable. Its 17-seat majority is the smallest of any British administration in 41 years.

It would take only nine of its Members of Parliament (MPs) -- who, in the past have proved rebellious, particularly over the issue of Europe -- to side with the opposition to defeat any government-proposed law. There are plenty of issues where the rank-and-file disagree with Cameron.

Earlier this month, 27 Tory MPs joined the opposition to defeat proposals on relaxing Sunday shop opening hours. It was a minor law but the move demonstrated how backbench MPs were prepared to defy the party leadership.

A week later a fresh challenge came from within the leadership itself, when senior minister Iain Duncan Smith resigned as work and pensions secretary over plans to reduce welfare payments for disabled people.

He implied the Conservatives were generating financial plans that benefited higher-earning taxpayers and pensioners -- traditionally part of the party’s voter base -- while harming lower-income voters, particularly those with disabilities.

It caused a humiliating change of plans as the government scrabbled to scrap the planned cuts just two days after they had been announced.

However, it is Europe that remains the Conservatives’ biggest bogeymen -- as it has for decades.

In 1975, two years after joining the then European Economic Community, the Labour government called the country’s last referendum on Europe to heal internal divisions within the party, according to political columnist Richard Roberts.

"Much the same could be said today of David Cameron’s referendum promise," he wrote in this week’s New Statesman magazine.

"But, in this regard, Cameron appears not to have learned the lesson of the last referendum. Far from helping Labour get over the split in its party, the referendum just compounded the issue. It took them 22 years to recover fully and win a general election."

Today, more than two-fifths of the 330 Conservative MPs are opposed to Britain’s EU membership and will campaign for Britain’s exit, or Brexit, ahead of the June 23 referendum, according to political journalist Guido Fawkes.

They include senior figures such as former minister Duncan Smith, London Mayor Boris Johnson and five cabinet ministers.

The split has already produced rancorous exchanges, with Conservatives on both sides of the campaign accusing the other side of creating "Project Fear” -- frightening voters over the consequences for Britain’s security and economic well-being if their side loses the referendum.

The task awaiting Cameron after June 23 will be to unite the Conservative Party. If voters opt for a Brexit there is every chance backbench unrest could turn into an insurrection.


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