Tory MPs rebel against government but who’s calling the tune?

Matt Vickers MP
Matt Vickers, MP Photo from wikimedia commons

Tuesday 15 December was a frustrating day for Stockton South MP, Matt Vickers. Just when he was ready to go and vote against the government’s proposals for protecting the public against the new Covid variant, he was struck down with Covid and had to stay at home.  And he couldn’t vote remotely because Jacob Rees-Mogg had forbidden it.

Tuesday was also a bit of a nail-biter for Hartlepool MP, Jill Mortimer.  The Spectator had printed her name in a list of 79 MPs expected to rebel against the same government bill.  This must have brought back unhappy memories of the last time her name appeared in a list in the media, which was in November when she voted against the government on the bill that would have got miscreant ex-MP Owen Paterson off the hook. The day after her act of rebellion, her name appeared in Conservative Home where all of that day’s rebels were listed.  She didn’t want any repeat of that.  So, she followed Vickers, used her get-out-of-jail-free card, and abstained.

And it seemed to work. On Wednesday the papers were full of the 99 Tories who had voted against the government, the greatest Tory rebellion in history, huge blow to Johnson’s credibility as a leader, a fiasco to add to the scandals, etc. etc.  And no mention of the abstainers.

Mortimer dodges a bullet.

Or rather two. One being put on the Conservative Home naughty step, the other the widely reported threat by Tory whips that MPs would lose funding for their constituencies if they ever rebelled against the government (the Guardian;  the Independent;  the FT).  If there’s one thing you have to give the Tories, it’s that they really know how to persecute.

It turns out, however, that abstention from Tuesday’s vote isn’t the only thing that Mortimer has in common with Vickers. Another is that they are both beneficiaries of a group of Tory donors known as Stalbury Trustees.

If you’ve never heard of Stalbury Trustees, that, it appears, is the way they like it. They don’t advertise.  But Electoral Commission records show 69 donations from them, all except one to Conservative associations around the country. The one exception is that they have made a donation directly to Matt Vickers in addition to the one made to Stockton Conservatives. Donations are typically £5,000:

We estimate that around 56 sitting MPs have thus benefited from Stalbury’s largesse of whom around seven are in ministerial positions. When we compare the list of rebels in Tuesday’s vote with those who ae linked to Stalbury, we find there are seventeen. Add to that list the number that, like Jill Mortimer, abstained and the total reaches twenty-eight.

In relation to the abstainers, it is uncertain what motivated their abstention. Some may coincidentally been in California at the time and unable to vote.  But five abstainers – Andrew Bowie, Simon Fell, Jill Mortimer, Douglas Ross, and Matt Vickers – are included in the list published by the Spectator of MPs who had previously stated they would vote against the bill.

From the North East

So, of those MPs who are Stalbury’s beneficiaries, more than half failed to actively support the government in Tuesday’s vote. They are thus disproportionately represented among the rebels, which raises questions about just what influence donors attempt to exert over those MPs who accept their money.

What little is know about Stalbury’s interests is largely contained in a 2017 investigation by Open Democracy.  It reveals that Stalbury’s interests include the union of the four nations, and Brexit. In fact, that report was an attempt to find the source of a £435,000 donation to the Brexit Campaign that was channelled through the DUP.  When approached, representatives for Stalbury denied any involvement in that transaction.  But they are known to have donated to the Better Together campaign during the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 and have also supported the pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG) of Conservative MPs.  

How exactly the trustees feel about vaccination passports is not known, but we might reasonably suppose that their view is more or less in line with that of the ERG.  If we look at the vote of known ERG members in Tuesday’s vote we find four not already counted above – Fox, Iain Duncan-Smith, Grayling and Steve Baker, and Mark Francois, who abstained, but who appears in the Spectator list.

With regard to Stalbury’s support for Unionism, the Open Democracy report states the following about one of the trustees, the Marquess of Salisbury:

“Salisbury has long taken an interest in Northern Irish Unionism, and, in 2010, hosted talks between the Conservatives and Northern Irish Unionist parties, including prominent DUP figures, at his home, Hatfield House, in Hertfordshire.”

Donations to Northern Irish MPs are not listed on the Electoral Commission’s website, and information about their financial interests is much more limited than that for MPs elsewhere in the UK. So, we do not know if they have received donations from Stalbury. What we do know is that of the eight DUP MPs, six voted against the bill and two abstained. 

As for Scotland’s Tory MPs, they all abstained, while two of them – Andrew Bowie and Douglas Ross – had previously stated that they would vote against the bill. And of the six, the local associations of four of them are in receipt of donations from Stalbury.

But, the Unionists and the ERG apart, much of the funding shown in the Electoral Commission register has been given to newbies, like Vickers and Mortimer. It is also evident that some funds have been given to local associations where the MP is not Conservative. This is presumably because the donations have been made as election campaign funding. And, given the preponderance of Stalbury beneficiaries among this week’s rebels, you have to wonder if the local associations receive some kind of memorandum of understanding along with their donation.

What you have to agree to in order to merit the Matt Vickers double dip is anybody’s guess.

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