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What’s Going Wrong in the Conservative Whips’ Office?

Last Updated: Friday, June 24th, 2011

At one level, yesterday’s Commons debate on wild animals in circuses was simply another Big Top Event in the Chamber – complete with dramatic tales of bullying, alleged skullduggery by the Speaker, Whips changing their minds and chasing their tails…and shameless playing to the animal rights gallery by some of those present: all the fun of the Parliamentary fair.

At another level, it highlighted the role of the tightly-knit band of politically-motivated men and women who are charged with keeping David Cameron’s show on the road – namely, the Conservative Whips.  And it brought to the surface a question that’s been quietly bubbling away in the Westminster Village for weeks: what’s going wrong in the Conservative Whips Office?

The best way of starting to answer this broad question is to probe the narrow facts of how yesterday’s debate was whipped.  Provisional whipping for the week ahead is sent to Conservative MPs the previous Thursday.  On that day last week, the Whips put a three-line whip against yesterday’s debate – in other words, Tory MPs would be required to vote at the end of it.  This Tuesday, the whipping was downgraded to one-line: those MPs would no longer be required to vote.  On Wednesday, it was changed back again to three-line.  And during the debate – as all those watching or following it now know – it was changed for a fourth time, and Conservative MPs were given a free vote.

This third U-turn will have provoked in many of those MPs emotions ranging from irritation to rage.  This is because while a few MPs like nothing better than debating and voting (such as Peter Bone, Philip Davies and Philip Hollobone on the Conservative side) most want to return to their constituencies reasonably early on a Thursday evening, in order to be ready for their surgeries on Friday, and the round of further duties on that day and over the weekend.  So to have made arrangements on the basis of a one-line whip, cancelled them when a three-line whip was restored…and then see that they could have kept their original arrangements – since the whipping was downgraded again during the debate – will have been infuriating.

Such changes are part of the hazard of Commons life.  But since this Parliament met, there has been a relentless flow of complaints from Tory MPs about heavy-handed whipping.  One MP yesterday sent Michael Fabricant, the Pairing Whip, a note saying that he was happy to return for yesterday’s debate, but that it would cost him £50 to do so: was he really needed?  The message received no reply.  Another recently had an engagement with a branch of his Conservative Association in his diary.  The whipping of the day was upgraded from a one-line whip to a three-line whip.  He therefore cancelled the engagement.  The whipping was then restored to one line.  The next day, members of that branch quizzed him about what had happened.  We’ve read yesterday’s Hansard, they said.  We see there was no vote: were you telling us the truth?

Most Tory MPs won’t blame the whips exclusively for yesterday’s events.  They will agree with the take on whips attributed to Enoch Powell: that as a house needs sewers, so Parliament needs whips.  They will think that when Mark Pritchard complained of bribes and bullying he was in effect hurling the stuff of those sewers around the Chamber – to the benefit of no-one other than Ed Miliband.  And they will believe that to do so over the fate of 39 circus animals is to show a want of proportion.  But they will also ask how a situation was allowed to arise in which a Conservative MP not so much washed as brandished the dirty linen of not only the Whips but the Prime Minister himself on the floor of the House of Commons.

The details of Pritchard’s dealings with the Whips are hotly contested.  Friends of the former claim that he would have accommodated the latter had they offered a timetable for a ban.  Friends of the latter counter that Pritchard was impossible to deal with.  Certainly, Patrick McLoughlin, the Chief Whip, James Paice, the Minister concerned, and the Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George were heard wrangling about a timetable with Pritchard in the lobby before the Government tabled an amendment to his motion.  That amendment might have proved accommodating enough to have lured some of Pritchard’s supporters into the Government lobby.  But the Speaker didn’t accept it – raising questions about whether his spiky relations with the Conservatives in general and McLoughlin in particular contributed to his decision.

At any rate, MPs were then left with a straight choice of whether to back Pritchard’s call for a ban in the division lobbies – after Graham Brady, the 1922 Committee Chairman, had tried to persuade his fellow officer to climb down.  Pritchard had vigorous support during the debate from his colleagues Matthew Offord, Bob Stewart, Zac Goldsmith and Sheryll Murray.  The Liberal Democrats were for a ban.  Lots of Labour MPs were lurking around Westminster, waiting for this chance to ambush the Government.  There was clearly a danger for the whips that the Government would lose.  Hence the decision to throw in the towel, and concede a free vote.  Indeed, Pritchard swept all before him when decision time came: his motion was passed without a division.  Which will cause Tory MPs to ask a further question: why wasn’t a free vote (on a one-line whip) allowed in the first place – for, if it had been, the Government and Prime Minister would have been spared the embarrassment heaped on them by Pritchard?

The answer to this question is obscure.  One theory is that Downing Street, which has long regarded Pritchard as a thorn in its side, was opposed to handing him a Parliamentary triumph.  Another, originally floated by Channel 4, draws a connection between the Prime Minister and a circus in his constituency.  There is no proof whatsoever for either of these claims.  A third is that the whips are militantly opposed to motions such as Pritchard’s, tabled for debate by the backbench business committee, ending in votes which may be carried.  For these Commons decisions will then, as they see it, at best restrict Ministers’ room for manoeuvre and at worst bind their hands completely.  This is the most convincing explanation that has been offered to date.  And it demonstrates that yesterday’s animal antics and class war – for by raising his council house background, Prichard simultaneously raised Cameron’s Bullingdon Club past – weren’t just an isolated incident, a fleck on the Commons’ ancient tapestry, but part of a story that’s woven through it: the clash between legislature and executive.

The cause of a civil war, this long struggle has swayed back and forth over the centuries.  Under Blair, the executive held sway.  During three terms in opposition, the Conservatives increasingly reacted against this trend, and under Cameron promised the election of Select Committee Chairmen and members, plus the creation of a backbench business committee: under Tory Government, the age of “Sofa Government” would end.  The Coalition has realised these pledges.  But, as so often in politics, they have had unforeseen consequences.  Post the expenses scandal, voters are hungrier than ever for independent-minded MPs who will tell the Whips where to stuff their legendary – if not mythical – Black Book, where the secret financial and personal misdeeds of MPs are said to be recorded.  Bone, Davies and Hollobone, the tireless Commons debaters mentioned earlier, are now not dismissible parts of the awkward squad, but elected members of the new business committee, where they seem content to select motions for debate that discomfort the Government.  It should never be forgotten that the debate tabled by David Davis and Jack Straw on votes for prisoners, which gained mass media coverage and caused Government mayhem, was one granted by the business committee.

Furthermore, the Government and whips blundered: they didn’t anticipate that many of these debates would end with votes.  All this would matter less if these were different times.  But there has probably never been a harder era in which to be a whip.  As I explained, the legislature is recovering power and the Commons is changing culture.  But the fall-out from the expenses scandal isn’t the only driver.  To the Whips Office, power is vertical: it runs from the party leader down through the Chief Whip to the lowliest backbencher.  To many new MPs, power is horizontal, shared among people who work together in a more informal, modern way.  It is the difference between the Officers Mess and the open-plan office – and, indeed, the Whips Office, though certainly modernised over the last 25 years, has authoritarian origins: after all, the original whips were the members of the hunt who kept the hounds in order.

Not so long ago, successful business people or company directors, touched directly or indirectly by the communalising influence of the Second World War, would accept this hierarchical arrangement without question.  This is no longer so, and that almost half of the Parliamentary Party is new – and much of it independent-minded – raises huge problems for the Whips Office: rebellions are at a record high.  And the unavoidable truth is that it’s less effective that it should be.  McLoughlin isn’t unpopular, and one can go further about his deputy, John Randall: a mordant figure whose jokes have Ronnie Barker timing, Randall is actually popular, a rarer commodity in the Commons than it might be.  But both are old dogs who instinctively raise their hackles at new tricks.

The effective number three in the Conservative team is the pairing whip.  This is the person who decides when and where to “slip” MPs who ask to be let off voting.  It follows that the work requires tact, firmness, patience and diplomacy in equal measure.  The present pairing whip is Michael Fabricant, a long-time Whips Office presence.  Complaints about Fabricant come from many quarters: above all, that he keeps MPs hanging about the Commons unnecessarily when the Government’s majority is secure.  Much of this negativity should be discounted as the usual grumbling.  But even Fabricant’s best friends would concede that his zingy personality is not best suited for the role.  Before Thursday’s debate, he sent an e-mail to Conservative MPs effectively blaming Pritchard for keeping them late in the Commons.  Even if true, this was out of step with the buttoned-up traditions of the Whips’ Office.  It is claimed that he will be moved on before the Commons resumes this autumn.

It would be easy to write that the Whips Office should modernise further, transform its ways, and seek to manage MPs as companies manage their employees – sketching out career paths for them in doing so.  Indeed, Alistair Burt, now a Foreign Office Minister, was sent to the Whips Office during the last Parliament with precisely such ambitions.  That these came too little isn’t surprising: since there’s no national consensus about the role of MPs, they have no career paths that can be planned.  But changes there should plainly be, and some of them are required in places even higher up the ladder of authority than the Whips Office.  It’s both legitimate and necessary to ask what’s going wrong with the Whips Office.  But it would unfair to allow McLoughlin and Randall to assume the role of fall-guys – shouldering the blame for yesterday’s fracas, and for sizeable rebellions on loans to Ireland, EU Sovereignty, English votes for English laws and the AV referendum.

Here are three modest changes that would be relatively easy to make and would do some good – though they wouldn’t come near to solving all the formidable problems laid out above.

* A diplomat near the top is required. Sacking or moving McLoughlin or Randall or both would solve nothing. But a senior person is needed who’s both reasonable, tough and understanding of the outlook of new MPs, even if he or she doesn’t agree with it and isn’t part of them. A name that keeps coming up is Hugh Robertson, the Olympics Minister. He is doubtless looking forward to the Games and would be alarmed by the suggestion. But he has the detachment and intelligence to understand that some of the treatment of rebels – such as the attack on Pritchard meted out by the loyalist Anna Soubry at this week’s ’22 – may be counter-productive. Pritchard was reportedly also heckled by Desmond Swayne, David Cameron’s Parliamentary Private Secretary.

* A new pairing whip and some women members with young children are required. The present Whip who’s best spoken of by a range of his colleagues is Jeremy Wright. His calm, pleasant, orderly style would dovetail with the work of pairing whip. The Whips’ office doesn’t have women members with young or teenage children – a category into which many female members of the new intake fall. One doesn’t have to have young children to understand the lot of those that do. But the absence of such women remains a gap, none the less, and should be filled.

* Cameron and George Osborne should keep out of day-to-day whipping. As I write, it would be wrong to cast the Whips Office as fall-guys in yesterday’s drama. Downing Street may, after all, have been responsible for at least part of it. It is the lot of Prime Ministers occasionally to try to talk MPs out of rebelling. But this has traditionally been done with a light touch. I’ve been told that one MP was told by Cameron recently that a rebellion wouldn’t be forgiven. And there were certainly reports of the Chancellor trying to lean on Tracey Crouch, an independent-minded member of the new intake, before one vote. This is a bit like ringmasters slugging it out with those fate it is to juggle bottles, spin plates, and roll globes: an act likely to bring everything crashing to the floor – themselves included. The Prime Minister already has tense relations with the party’s right in general and the 1922 Committee in particular. He shouldn’t risk making them even more difficult.

Paul Goodman




Martin Sewell: Printing money Quantitative Easing may sound harmless, but it has evil consequences:
“Quietly stealing the value of our money is not entirely unpopular. It lets governments off the hook, so that the consequences of their economic policies are deferred. Likewise, the spendthrift, the speculator, and those with industrial muscle, who can ride the wave, keep ahead of the curve, but the latest analyses of the phenomenon has demonstrated that there is not, in fact, a single rate of inflation as we have commonly been led to believe.  The impact varies across the social spectrum. The consequent devaluation of the pound inevitably means that those commodities which we import cost disproportionately more. This “basket” of purchases, for those of modest means, includes foodstuffs, children’s clothing, public transport costs, and energy. All are necessities which predominate in the spending patterns of the less well-off. Money is also an imported commodity, so that whilst the cost of secured credit, such as mortgages, may be low for those trusted with such borrowing, the risk posed by the poor on more vulnerable incomes will inevitably rise, and with it the cost of their credit.”  Read more:

Matthew Barrett: Will the Left stop pretending Michael Gove is planning a mass expansion of faith schools?
“Here is one of Polly Toynbee’s columns from April: “This government is increasing faith education, with seven out of 10 applications for free schools coming from religious organisations…Seven out of 10″? The reality is that in last year’s Free School application round, the Department for Education received 115 applications from groups wishing to set up faith schools – or 40% of the total applications. Not 70%. This year, in the application round that was open from 17th March 2011 until 15th June 2011, the Department for Education received 65 applications (or, 29% of the total) from groups wishing to set up faith schools. So the Free Schools policy is transparently not a front for a mass expansion of faith schools. Will the Left stop pretending it is?  Read more:

David T Breaker: Steve Hilton – traditionalist in disguise:
“I guess whether you see Steve Hilton as a true traditionalist or not depends on what you call a traditionalist; whether you see it as being a conformist to surface cultural attributes and not being too radical policy wise, a kind of Macmillan, or as a policy vision, willingness to be radical, unashamed impatience and reforming zeal, a kind of Thatcher. Traditional to the Tory Party of bowler hats or to the party of “Big Bang” market reforms. I’m a strong believer in the latter, and don’t see much point in politics without getting things done, which is why I’m such a fan of Hilton. The government needs Steve Hilton, he’s the driving force behind it all, especially the reforms loved by true Conservatives. Like the ravens at the Tower of London, if he goes, the project will fall. That cannot be allowed to happen, and to avoid this catastrophe Hilton needs support; it’s time traditionalists looked past the surface and recognised one of their own, Steve Hilton, the standard bearer of our party’s radical traditionalism.” – Read more:

Paul Goodman: It’s time to end the Tory war on multiculturalism:
“So the time has come to end the Tory war on multiculturalism.  Le’s repeat the three reasons why.  First, because the word covers so many sins and virtues, and means so many things to so many people, as now to be almost meaningless.  Second, because it isn’t helping the Party win votes: winning votes isn’t everything in politics, of course, but it’s more often an aim worth pursuing than not.  Third, because the M-word has become a distraction, a diversion, a dissipation of energies better focused “like a laser beam” on the struggle against extremism and the ideology that underpins it.  Tell a group of a hundred people in a mixed-ethnicity marginal that you oppose both, and most will agree.  Tell them you oppose multiculturalism – state or otherwise – and you’ll begin an argument that will end on judgement day.”

John Baron MP: A £2.2million reprieve for the BBC World Service does not reverse short-sighted cuts to our soft power capability:
‘News that the Government has found an extra £2.2million for the BBC World Service is welcome. But this in itself does not reverse the cuts being made to our soft power capability. One of the key lessons from the Arab Spring is that, in this information age, winning the story is just as important as winning the conflict. To this end, soft power will become increasingly important, to the advantage of those countries which properly resource this asset. Yet Britain is almost alone in reducing its soft power capability…The hope is that there will be a greater recognition in the conduct of our foreign policy that our interests lie in upholding our values – democracy, the rights of the individual, the rule of law, etc. But such values must not be forced onto other countries. Persuasion is much more powerful. But, if this is to be the case then it will be increasingly important for ‘hard power’ to be complemented by ‘soft power’, in order to win the battle of ideas as well as the conflict. The UK has a relative advantage, but it is being squandered through trivial funding cuts and misguided policies.” Read more:

Tim Montgomerie: Looking forward to 2018 and the Boris versus George fight for the Tory leadership:

“It is, of course, absurdly early to speculate but we’re allowed a bit of fun ever so often, aren’t we? In yesterday’s Telegraph Benedict Brogan looked into the distance and to the battle to succeed David Cameron. If all goes well we’re looking at 2017/2018 when Cameron stands down as Tory leader after seven or eight years at Number 10. The expectation is that the two leading contenders for the Tory crown will be George Osborne and Boris Johnson. Let’s take a quick look at their strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities…”  Read the full details of the strengths and weaknesses of both, and the opportunities and threats that they face:  P.S: “As I say, absurdly early to speculate. Cameron stood for the leadership after just one term as an MP. The next leader might be one of the Class of 2010.”


Tim Montgomerie: George Osborne’s four laws of political success… as chosen by William Hague:
Last week the Chancellor celebrated his 40th birthday. Unfortunately ConservativeHome’s invitation was lost in the post but we have learnt that William Hague gave the ‘happy birthday speech’ and set out what he described as George Osborne’s four laws of political success. Law one: Work out, ahead of anyone else, who will be the next leader, stick to them like glue and become indispensable…Law two: Don’t just study your opponent’s policies but get inside their minds by studying their deepest moral processes…Law three: If you have to take a risk make it worthwhile. .. Law four: Don’t forget the first law, just because there are two others!  In his speech George Osborne joked that the most important reason for becoming Chancellor was to avoid going down in history as the man who was political strategist to William Hague.  Read More:

Paul Goodman

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