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What Is a Backbench Rebellion?

Updated April 17, 2017

A backbencher is a member of the UK House of Commons who does not sit with the ministry or the opposition shadow ministry. Although backbenchers do not hold power, a concerted revolt could topple the ruling party through a "no confidence" vote.

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Role of the Backbencher

Under the Westminster parliamentary system in the House of Commons, backbencher Members of Parliament (MPs) typically hold voting rights and authority only to introduce legislation to the lower house of Parliament. Although members of the ruling party, some of these private members of Parliament often defy the party platform and register dissent votes on legislation. MPs who frequently register "no" votes become labelled as rebels.

Notable Backbench Rebellions

If sufficient numbers of rebel backbenchers form a coalition over a contentious issue, they may defeat legislation. These concerted efforts are referred to as "backbench rebellions." The most recent successful rebellion occurred on November 9, 2006, over the Terrorism Act 2006, when a large number of backbenchers voted against the 90-day detention provision of the antiterror legislation in order to stall the bill. This proved to be the single largest defeat for then-Prime Minister Tony Blair since his government had come to power.

Other significant backbench revolts have occurred over top-up fees for higher education and foundation hospitals.

No Confidence Votes

In extreme cases, backbenchers may create a large enough voting bloc to call for a no-confidence vote from within their own party. However, such dissolution of the government is rare; it has happened only three times since 1924.

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About the Author

Kevin Owen has been a professional writer since 2005. He served as an editor for the American Bar Association's "Administrative Law Review." Owen is an employment litigator in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area and practices before various state and federal trial and appellate courts. He earned his Juris Doctor from American University.

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