Whatever else may be said of David Nuttall, he's not a man to take the easy road. The steelmaker's son from Sheffield left his comprehensive school at 18 in the teeth of a recession, when "all that really mattered was getting a job". He slogged his way to becoming a solicitor via night school and a degree taken by correspondence course, and only landed the parliamentary seat of Bury North after three failed attempts.
"Somebody posted on my blog the other day, 'You've got no idea what it's like' and I thought, if only you knew," he says with feeling.
But Nuttall is no bleeding-heart liberal: he's a Tory MP, steeped in an older and more rugged strain of Conservatism than that of his current leader. "I just like to stand up for everybody who believes in free enterprise and freedom of choice and giving people the opportunity to improve themselves, by giving them a choice without government dictating to them," he says. "I never had the chance to go to grammar school, but I am the opposite of all those socialists like my predecessor, who went to Bury grammar school but wanted to abolish it."
Nuttall wants an EU referendum, thinks marriage should be between a man and a woman, and can't for the life of him see why coalition with the Liberal Democrats – or even taking the Tory whip – should change that. He has voted more than 70 times against the Conservative mainstream in less than two years as an MP, making him the second most rebellious member of what is so far (according to the definitive study by political scientist Philip Cowley) the most mutinous parliament since the war.
It feels less dramatic than the Maastricht years, because the coalition's majority is mostly sufficient to avoid defeat; less vicious than the late Blair years, mainly because it's still all quite chaotic. There is no single, regicidal revolt, but several different overlapping groupings fizzing around the backbenches, not all of whom feel ill-disposed to their leader but many of whom feel excluded from the ruling clique: not liberal enough, metropolitan enough, young or photogenic enough; not sycophantic enough, not posh enough (or else the wrong kind of posh) for the Notting Hill set.
But as hopes fade for an economic miracle to restore the government's popularity, there are signs of trouble coalescing into something more ominous. Like an unhappy couple sticking together for the sake of the children, the coalition government clings grimly to its mission – but David Cameron's relationship with a significant chunk of his own party is heading for the rocks.
"A lot of it is that they don't particularly share Cameron's policy preferences," says Cowley, professor of government at the University of Nottingham. "They were prepared to believe as long as he won, but he didn't win enough. Added to that, they think he treats them with disdain, and is he going to win next time? The last two are the ones that are potentially really dangerous."
To Cameron loyalists, the rebels are traitors: self-indulgent at best, fruitcakes at worst, ratting on the man who got them elected. But the rebels remain convinced that it's Cameron who betrayed the party first – by dragging it to the centre, by not winning the election, by entering a coalition for which they feel he lacked consent, by staying in Europe. There is a pungent sense that he hasn't earned the right to their loyalty.
"The first time you vote against the government, it's a really horrible thing to do," Nadine Dorries says. "You feel horribly disloyal, incredibly guilty: you feel almost dirty… But I have to say, the second time, it's not quite as bad."
Despite having unforgettably described her leader and chancellor as two arrogant posh boys who don't know the price of milk, Dorries wasn't always a rebel. During her first parliament, she made waves on her chosen causes – particularly abortion – but not against her leader: until relatively recently, she would share cosy cups of tea with Cameron's then chief strategist Steve Hilton. She didn't even vote against the pasty tax that prompted her infamous outburst, although, having grown up on a council estate where everybody nipped to Greggs for lunch, she can't believe how "incredibly stupid" it was.
Her strategy is apparently to vote as she thinks her constituents would wish (she rebelled against the caravan tax and VAT on listed building repairs), but then let rip with her personal view. "I regard that almost as a rebellion, although I didn't vote against my party: I voiced a disloyal thought, if you like, though a real and accurate thought." A thought with which, she insists, many colleagues agreed: "You've no idea how many MPs pile into my office in the afternoon for cups of tea on the sofa. It's been like a little naughty girls' meeting room."
But Dorries swears that even two years ago she'd never have imagined herself voting against a Conservative government. What changed things was Cameron's agreement to the televised pre-election debates (giving Nick Clegg his chance to shine), then his decision to enter a coalition rather than try to form a minority government. "That changed my preconceptions of loyalty. Then my dissatisfaction with the leadership and the way they handled things put further disenchantment on that, which led to my own rebellions… It was circumstances that led me there."
Nuttall, meanwhile, finds "frankly laughable" the idea that he even agreed to a coalition: while the Liberal Democrats got a full vote on the deal (and have subsequently proved less rebellious), the Tory side rubber-stamped it in minutes. "It was like a 1970s trade union meeting," he recalls. "I'd never seen this document before – this crucial document relating to the running of the country for five years. We got a vague few minutes on it, and then it was all agreed. I don't particularly think I should be bound by things I didn't agree to."
And yet there's more to this insurrection than the pressures of merging two parties. Both sides were bound to balk occasionally at each other's pet policies, but that doesn't explain why a handful of Tories would break ranks to back a Labour amendment on payday loans, nor why indiscipline has now risen for three parliaments in a row. What seems to be happening is less an isolated backlash against one leader and more a resistance to the whole idea of being led.
In his forthcoming book The End Of Politics And The Birth Of iDemocracy, Douglas Carswell, the Clacton MP and reigning intellectual of the rebel camp, argues that conventional political parties are doomed, thanks to insurgent small parties and fickle voters who no longer feel tied to big brands. To survive, he says, parties must become much looser, crowdsourced political movements – which sounds faintly implausible, until you consider Boris Johnson as a textbook example of a politician transcending his party machine.
Carswell has voted repeatedly against the government, but doesn't agree that this makes him rebellious. "The whole reason you have a parliament is to represent taxpayers – to say, 'Don't spend our money that way, and your great big grand idea is wrongheaded,'" he scolds. "The idea that I'm trying to usurp this grand authority is ridiculous: I'm doing my job. A rebel is someone who is trying to overturn legitimate authority." And it's this question of where authority lies that is key.
Tracey Crouch is, as she puts it, no "rightwing nutjob, voting against the government because it's some kind of lily-livered coalition". A former ministerial aide elected in 2010, she was a good bet for promotion – until she deliberately chose to put constituency before party. She defied the whip over a handful of issues, including payday lending and the rise in tuition fees, because families in her Chatham and Aylesford constituency are struggling with debt. "It was a really, really hard decision. But I know that I can look in the eye kids in my constituency who are now deterred from going to university and say, 'Well, I didn't vote for it.'" If it cost her a job, she says, so be it. Crouch is one of nine Tories publicly pledged to oppose the planned August rise in petrol duty, now shaping up to be the next rallying cause.
There is a sharp divide between Crouch's parliamentary generation, half of whom have rebelled at least once, and their elders. A bloody-minded lot, whose politics was formed in the unfashionable opposition years, the new intake cultivate an unusually frank relationship with their voters via Twitter, Facebook or blogging. Many are in marginal seats where they may not get a second term, encouraging them, Crouch says, to pursue "short-term gains we can make for the people who got us here". And some really have nothing to lose: Zac Goldsmith, who recently vowed not to stand again as a Tory if a third runway at Heathrow goes ahead, is among a handful whose seats are due to vanish in 2015 under plans to downsize the Commons.
But what really shapes this intake is being elected amid a furious backlash against spin and sleaze. What better way to prove you're neither in it for the perks, nor ruled by spin doctors, than to rebel on behalf of one's constituents?
"One of the biggest problems facing politicians and politics in this country is the lack of trust," says Nuttall, whose predecessor in Bury North was jailed for expenses fraud.
There is an urgent need for authenticity, what the new Witham MP Priti Patel calls "a degree of integrity, [being] someone that's respected for my views" rather than for becoming junior minister for paperclips. (Patel was tipped as a future cabinet minister, until she rebelled over Europe.) And enthusiasm for batting on sticky government wickets has only been further undermined by repeated U-turns.
Patel recalls staying up late one night, loyally answering piles of letters from constituents angry about the planned sell-off of the nation's forests, despite her private doubts. "I'd just signed the letters, I switched on the telly and saw Sally Bercow, of all people, on the paper reviews, holding up the Independent with 'U-turn' [on forests] on the front," she says. "I went down to the whips' office absolutely steaming and said, 'Is this true?' and they said, 'You're telling us this for the first time.'"
One reason you see "the same old faces" on TV every night defending government, Patel says, is that MPs don't want to be left looking silly if the line changes. Rebelling sometimes feels merely like being ahead of the curve – and nowhere more so than over Europe, where Cameron now seems to be contemplating his biggest U-turn yet, over the granting of the "in or out" referendum on Europe for which 81 rebels voted last year.
The pivotal point for many hardcore rebels wasn't when Labour overtook the Tories in the polls, but when Ukip briefly overtook the Liberal Democrats as the third party. It seemed to confirm the right's greatest fear: that in "detoxifying" his party, Cameron may have jettisoned what made it successful, leaving Ukip free to clean up.
"They take the land that's been ceded by moving to the left, and there are those of us who would like the party to move back that way," Dorries says. "Ukip policies today are the Conservative policies of yesterday and some of us still think those values are relevant today and tomorrow. If it's about Europe and grammar schools and social mobility and people being able to move through the class structure, that is very much the policies Ukip is seizing." It may sound faintly paranoid, when Ukip has no realistic prospect of Westminster seats, but the fear is that it might permanently split the rightwing vote, stopping the Tories ever regaining a working majority.
Yet much as they loathe the coalition's blurring of party lines, some now see in the problem its own solution. If the Tory modernisers can hop into bed with the Liberal Democrats, is snuggling up to Ukip so wrong?
Nobody walks this line more brazenly than Philip Hollobone. The most prolific rebel of this parliament, he happily admits to getting on "very well" with Ukip members and agreeing with many of their policies: the party didn't stand against him in 2010, while the Ukip peer Lord Pearson even campaigned for him in Kettering. He has probably stretched the rules as far as a Tory MP can without being disciplined, but he doesn't rule out the two parties moving further towards some kind of pact for 2015.
"Could there be different arrangements next time?" he asks. "Absolutely: there is some talk on the other side of coalition candidates. We are in unknown territory, but it's certainly an issue that people ought to talk about."
And behind closed doors, they already are. Dorries reports some grassroots Tories are actively discussing the possibility of candidates jointly endorsed by both Ukip and the Conservatives. "I know in some Conservative associations there has been that discussion," she says. "There's a body of Conservative MPs on the right who would far prefer to be working with, and allied to, Ukip, and there's a body of Conservatives on the left who would prefer to be allied to the Lib Dems. How that plays out is the big question."
It's a question that could tear the Conservative party apart, which is perhaps why only a minority are yet asking it. But with serious uprisings looming over everything from gay marriage to Lords reform, Downing Street seems to be drawing in its horns. Talk of a "coalition 2.0" blueprint of joint future projects for the two ruling parties has stopped abruptly: ministers report an increasingly hand-to-mouth existence. "They're just going with the coalition agreements and the bills they've announced, as if that's enough," says one senior backbencher, complaining that the coalition is no longer "based on anything", with little discernible long-term strategy. .
More alarmingly, Cameron's room for manoeuvre in the face of events is shrinking. He lectures Europe on its weak leadership, but the rebels gleefully calculate that he probably couldn't get his own parliament's consent to any new eurozone bailout involving British money: would they even follow his lead in a future crisis, from unforeseen domestic catastrophe to the threat of war? The risk is that government will become paralysed by the fear of defeat, ducking necessary arguments and sidelining big ideas, going out not with a bang but with a whimper.
This is, of course, precisely the fate Cameron entered coalition to avoid. He saw, as a young ministerial adviser in the Major years, how a leader with a wafer-thin majority could be held to ransom by a few diehards: he knew the roots of his own modernising project didn't run deep enough to risk something similar. Choosing coalition instead of a minority government bought him time to try to finish the job. But that time is now running out.
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