Party unity was supposedly the key reason David Cameron pledged to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Despite being reasonably pro-EU, he pledged in a speech in 2013 that if the Conservatives won a majority at the next election, he would hold an “in-out” referendum; a pledge which was also put in the Conservative 2015 manifesto. He did this so as to calm the Eurosceptic wing of his party and keep them from launching any sort of rebellion against him.
He might well have made this pledge in the hope that the Conservatives, rather than win the 2015 election outright, would have to govern in coalition with the Liberal Democrats again. The Liberal Democrats, as perhaps the most pro-EU party in Parliament, would never do a deal with the Conservatives if it meant risking our membership of the EU. The argument goes that, as a result, Cameron hoped he would never have to act on this pledge.
Two years on, Britain gave the Conservatives a majority in the House of Commons, meaning the referendum had to go ahead. As we all know, Cameron lost the referendum and ended up losing his position, by his own resignation, anyway.
The power of the Prime Minister is also checked by the effectiveness of the opposition, especially the Leader of the Opposition and their Shadow Cabinet. If they are able to pin the government down on its failings, the government may be forced to alter its policies or conduct complete U-turns on them.
Perhaps the biggest U-turn of this government so far has been the tax credits U-turn. Tax credits are a form of benefit given to those in work who aren’t paid adequately by their employers. Tax credits top-up their otherwise meagre salaries. Having just won the 2015 election the then Chancellor George Osborne held an “emergency Budget” in July where he said the government planned to cut tax credits by £4 billion, leaving 3 million families £1,300 worse off on average.
It was a policy which received a huge amount of opposition from all side of the political spectrum. Conservative publications like The Spectator voiced opposition to the hurt it would cause to workers.
Despite this, the government managed push it through the House of Commons, able to get all but a couple of Conservatives to vote in favour. But it then passed to the House of Lords to vote on it, and they rejected it. And even though the government can eventually pass through Acts of Parliament without the House of Lords, Osborne decided to drop the deeply unpopular policy, performing a U-turn on it in his Autumn Statement later that year.
Though this was less a case of the official opposition constraining the Prime Minister than it was a case of negative media publicity and strong public opposition constraining what he wanted to do. Labour was without a leader from May until September of that year and when Jeremy Corbyn won Labour’s leadership election he was widely panned for the ineffectiveness of his opposition.
It was mainly the fact that for so many people the cuts flew in the face of the Conservative’s message of being the “party for working people” and so after it was rejected by the Lords it proved too much for them to carry on with it.
Image: By Original photo by User:Gryffindor (crop of Image:Blair Heiligendamm G8 2007 006.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons