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Tory rebels sense the time to pipe down is nigh

Although voters say they want independent-minded MPs, they prefer to vote for united parties

British voters, dontcha love 'em? You may be one, in which case I salute you. You have played the most wonderful trick on politicians. You tell them that you don't like them, which, given that they want you to vote for them, means that they scrabble to try to find out what it is that you don't like. One of the things you don't like, you say, is that they take the party line. They do what they are told by the whips. If only they stood up for what they really believed, like Sarah Wollaston, the GP for Totnes, or Douglas Carswell, the Eurosceptic troublemaker for Clacton, or Dominic Raab, last week's rebel who wants to deport foreign criminals.

Then, when half the Conservative Party is at war with the other half, you say: "Your party is divided; I can't vote for David Cameron, he can't even control his own MPs; what a rabble." At which point, something strange starts to happen. Tory MPs, who have been having the time of their lives for the past three years, have started to wonder if they've been doing it all wrong. This lot, the 2010 intake, thought they were going to do it differently. After years of Labour rule, they said: "We shall not be like them. We shall not respond obediently to instructions from Control Freak Central."

When a Tory whip patronised them like a primary-school teacher, explaining that they would have to do as they were told and sit nicely on the carpet if they wanted a ministerial job, they laughed in his face. Or, more probably, behind his back. We are going to be independent-minded, they all said, in unison. Our constituents will respect us and the Prime Minister will realise how important we are and make us ministers even if we have caused him nothing but irritation, grief and the loss of a dozen seats by sabotaging constituency boundary reform.

So they voted for impossible things, and their rebellions were recorded by Professor Philip Cowley of Nottingham University, who has cornered the market in the study of MPs' voting behaviour. They weren't made ministers, but they thought they were making a difference, for example forcing the Prime Minister to promise a referendum on EU membership.

Something changed last week, however. Douglas Carswell said "I've changed my mind" about voting for rebel Tory amendments to the Immigration Bill. Now that Cameron had promised a referendum, those, like him, who want Britain to leave the EU had to "grow up", he said. "The restoration of British independence, the repudiation of the Treaty of Rome, is a realistic option. But we need a little discipline to make it happen." Everything had to be subordinated to winning in 2015.

The same message was carried by editorials in The Times and, after the vote on Raab's amendment, in The Sun: "With an election 15 months away, [the] rebels should be searching their souls."

The vote itself was a special case for Professor Cowley's collection. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, first tried to get round it by tabling Government amendments, which would normally be voted on first. But the Speaker changed the order of business so that MPs could vote on the Raab amendment, which sought to prevent criminals using the "right to family life" as a defence against deportation. Home Office lawyers insisted this would be contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights. For some MPs that would be a reason to vote for it, but a government cannot defy treaty obligations so insouciantly. In the end, Tory MPs were whipped to abstain, and the rebel amendment was defeated by Labour and Lib Dem MPs, who outnumbered Tory rebels (not including Carswell this time).

Yvette Cooper, May's shadow, crowed that the Home Secretary's antics had "no precedent", but Professor Cowley points out that Cameron has used the tactic of ordering his ministers to abstain a lot recently to avoid embarrassing defeats. Tory whips have learned the hard way that big rebellions attract much more damaging headlines than confusing situations where ministers simply stay away from the voting lobbies.

Indeed, Cowley says: "There's nothing very new about prime ministers getting into difficulty with backbenchers. And there's especially nothing very new about Conservative prime ministers getting into difficulty with their backbenchers over Europe." Despite the myth of New Labour lobby fodder, Cowley points out that MPs have been getting more rebellious for decades.

A source close to Cameron comments sourly that, "increasingly, MPs are like Congressmen", compiling a voting record independently of their party. But this process is, thank goodness, not that far gone. We are not in Washington DC gridlock yet. The source says: "Sometimes it's not pretty, but it gets done."

Parliamentary tactics are always evolving. Considering that this government is a coalition, it has had less trouble getting its business through than many expected. And, last week, we saw the first signs that Tory rebels might realise that, although voters say they want independent-minded MPs, they prefer to vote for united parties.