Revealed: Blair's 'bastard' MPs who could make his life a misery in No 10

Click to follow
They sound like new additions to the staff of the royal family, but their role is infinitely more seditious. The Rebels in Waiting, also known as "Blair's Bastards" are the Labour MPs who will make it hard for King Tony to govern, writes Paul Routledge.

Everybody knows that John Major has his bastards, because he told us so. They're in his Cabinet. But new research from the University of Hull places the Labour leader's illegitimate children in an even more dangerous place: behind him, where he cannot see them. And in greater numbers.

Academics Philip Cowley and Philip Norton, of the University's Centre of Legislative Studies, have scrutinised the voting record of rebellious backbenchers and they conclude: "Tony Blair has more 'bastards' than John Major."

Since 1992, 38 Labour MPs have voted more than 20 times against their party instructions in the House of Commons. Indeed, 12 of them have rebelled 40 times or more. Unsurprisingly, Dennis Skinner, the "Beast of Bolsover", heads the list with 95 separate acts of parliamentary defiance, followed by Harry Barnes (Derbyshire NE) with 75 and Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) with 64. Maastricht was the most common cause of revolt, but Labour MPs have shown they will rebel over just about anything.

Surveying the evidence in their 30-page unpublished report, Blair's Bastards, Cowley and Norton predict that whatever the shape of the new intake after the general election Prime Minister Blair (should he become that) will have to cope with around 30 dissident MPs - enough to make his reign a troublesome one.

"Thirty troublemakers make trouble no matter how many loyalists there are," they argue. "The size of majority is crucial, therefore. To be able to safely accommodate a group of 30 dissident MPs requires a majority of at least 60 over all other parties, which in turn requires a swing to Labour of more than 8 per cent. Even if a Labour government is now likely, such a large swing - larger than any seen since 1945 - remains unlikely."

To nobody's very great amazement, the academics find that the parliamentary Labour Party has a history of recidivism. "What is more, from 1945 to 1979 such rebellious tendencies increased, reaching their zenith just before Labour lost office in 1979. Labour MPs banded together in increasing numbers, with increasing effect.

"Should the same thing occur under the next Labour government, particularly if it has a small majority, the effect could be dramatic. Labour MPs dissent more often than Conservatives; they dissent in greater numbers and they dissent on more issues."

Contrary to the media hype, say the University team, Tony Blair does not lead a party where dissent is rare, or where the prospect of government has imposed a discipline of which government whips can only dream. Rather, the reverse. The prospect of power may well be damping down dissent, but it is not eliminating it. In government, the Labour whips would face a battle on several fronts, and retirements will not solve their problem.

"These rebels are not going to go away." Patronage will help the Labour premier, because more than 100 MPs would be part of the "payroll vote", either as ministers or their parliamentary private secretaries who must toe the party line. Others will be ambitious for office and may find promises dangled before them like a carrot.

But many Labour MPs who disagree with party policy are keeping quiet, for fear of losing the next election. "If we accept that, we should expect the levels of dissent to increase once Labour are in office. Having won (if they win), the pressure to stay silent is lifted. Few of the rebels are likely either to enter government or to besilenced by the prospect."

Based solely on what MPs are currently doing in the division lobbies, let alone what they might be saying, a future Labour government faces the clear potential for serious discontent, reasons Blair's Bastards. "While many Labour MPs are clearly ministers in waiting, there are also some who are rebels in waiting."