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Why Cameron May Now Have No Choice But To Move Andrew Mitchell

Last Updated: Friday, September 28th, 2012

A constant theme of my newsletters is the change in the culture of Conservative MPs that has taken place since the last election.  Two long-term trends have yoked, and together make life more difficult for David Cameron.  The first is voter expectation.  If MPs are pulled one way by their constituents and the other by the party whips, the former are even less tolerant than before of Parliamentarians who simply walk the party line.  The second is generational change.  The 2010 Tory intake – almost half the whole Parliamentary Party – is less deferential and more independent-minded than those which came before it.  The Twitter Generation of Conservative MPs simply doesn’t understand the military-flavoured ethos of the Whips Office.

A consequence is that Conservative backbenchers are now the most rebellious in modern times.  The Tory whips have by definition thus failed to keep the number of revolts at a lower level – even though Patrick McLoughlin, the previous Chief Whip, understood the scale of the change and appreciated that MPs can’t simply be kept in line by being given orders.  So no wonder most of my Tory MP friends greeted the news of McLoughlin’s replacement by Andrew Mitchell in the recent reshuffle as a bad idea.  I tried to explain why in an article for ConservativeHome written soon after the news was announced, headed (rather presciently, I think, given events since) “Andrew Mitchell must deploy his charm, not wield the cane”.

“Mr Mitchell,” I said, “has the feel and flavour of a Conservative MP from the era of Francis Urquhart…He is one of those men who imposes himself on his surroundings, and while he is a shrewd observer of other people, he tends to impose himself on them too.  This has not won him universal popularity among lobby journalists.”  In other words, the new Chief Whip, a former army officer, is an old-fashioned product and may not have grasped that times have changed.  And lo and behold, “Gate-gate” took place within a month.  The Prime Minister looked as angry when responding to the incident on video as I have ever seen him: he knows how toxic the Posh Charge is for his party.  But he doesn’t want to lose his Chief Whip and is hunkering down.

None the less, the standing of the Whips Office has been further damaged.  It has been slowly losing authority during this Parliament; now, Mitchell has suddenly lost quite a bit of his own.  Authority is admittedly hard to measure.  But the new Chief Whip is now not in a good position to wield the cane, as I put it in that original piece on ConservativeHome.  If he shouts at MPs they are now more likely to shout back – adding, if sufficiently detached from the party leadership, that if he speaks to them like that again they’ll be off to his enemies in the media.  In short, the Number One Rule for Chief Whips is to keep out of the news, and it is a rule that Mitchell has spectacularly broken (or been seen to).

I close where I began – with the point that he started with a certain reputation and a weak hand.  The latter was proved when it was first made known that he wanted to restore the standing of the Whips Office, and it swiftly also became known that three able Tory MPs (Dominic Raab, Ben Wallace and Rob Wilson) had refused to serve in it – an unprecedented snub for the institution.  His new right-hand man, Greg Knight, has himself rebelled frequently, and may thus find it harder to keep recalcitrant MPs in line than would otherwise have been the case.  The tabloids are still pursuing the new Chief Whip, his many enemies in the lobby still have their knives out for him, and – most alarmingly – the Whips Office itself has begun to leak.

Mitchell apparently told the Conservative MPs who constitute the new office that it had previously been run like a sergeant’s mess and he wants it run like an officer’s mess.  This class-conscious remark promptly ended up in the press.  It may not be the case that one of the new Chief Whip’s new colleagues leaked these words.  He may have told another Tory MP who, in turn, may have told a journalist.  But the incident was a signal of how fragile Mitchell’s position now is.  I judge that the new Chief Whip must now keep out of public sight and mind for the coming political year.  If he can do this, he will recover.  But if he can’t, the reshuffle-resistant Mr Cameron may find that the Mitchell problem can only be solved by moving him next summer.

By Paul Goodman

 

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE WEEK ON CONSERVATIVEHOME

Grant Shapps: This year’s party conference will be more focused on grassroots members:
“Things are changing. There’s more engagement, more members sessions, more interaction. Great work started by my predecessor Sayeeda Warsi. Our focus on members has changed the game at conference. We’ve created more members-only events than we’ve seen for years…Six interactive mainstage sessions…A new parliamentary area for MPs to meet with constituency activists in a more private setting…New guides to digital communication…The return of the Conservative Policy Forum…Meet the Chairmen – a closed forum where Andrew and myself will genuinely answer any question our members pose…The Road to 2015 session by CCHQ’s Director of Campaigning Stephen Gilbert.” Read more: http://is.gd/cuRqU1

Matthew Barrett: The Coalition is not doing enough to end the equalities industry – tackling it would be a social and economic good:  “George Osborne and Francis Maude, whose job it is to cut through the waste and excess of Whitehall, need to take a lead on the equalities industry. Its utopian ideology is out-dated and unnecessary, its research and cries of “inequality!” are shoddy and reductive, and it is costing British business, and causing trouble in government. It contributes to our economic stagnation – and think how much Labour would expand it if they enter office with the tentacles of the human rights establishment still intact. Dismantling the equalities quangocracy would give the Government days of positive headlines in the press – and a positive reaction from the public.” Read more: http://is.gd/r1NeZ5

Binita Mehta: The Olympic summer of 2012 has reignited our pride in being British:
“Just ahead of the summer, my Conservative Future friends were questioning the value of the Olympics to Britain. Not anymore. Now we are having discussions about how we can see a legacy for volunteering, and how we get that same kind of community spirit working again. They also feel the way Boris embodied the optimism of 2012 has been a great boost for us. We have seen a shift in attitudes to the flag and how some people react to it, and young people I know are feeling it strongly. Suddenly, people started wearing Union Jack painted nails and phone covers (not just me). We understood how it felt to be surrounded by people sporting red, white and blue in the streets, something that I don’t remember in my lifetime.” Read more: http://is.gd/WkeGjk

Paul Goodman: Forget the party conferences. Think instead about what will happen here if Israel bombs Iran:  “Conservative Friends of Israel record 80% of Tory MPs as members, but to be a friend of Israel isn’t necessarily to be a friend of Mr Netanyahu, and for Israel’s Prime Minister to act unilaterally, without the military support of the United States, would be unlikely to win him more on the Conservative backbenches.  But it is the response not of Tory MPs but of Liberal Democrat ones, backbench and frontbench alike, that will be most on Mr Cameron’s mind. The LibDem benches in the Commons are full of soft-faced men and women who did well out of opposing the Iraq War…What would Ed Miliband do – especially if fault lines appeared in the Coalition that Labour could exploit?  Could the Straits of Hormuz run through the Prime Minister’s office, as Clarissa Eden said of the Suez canal during the Suez crisis? Read more: http://is.gd/4WHT2C

Tim Montgomerie: The Lib Dems are painting the Conservatives as the party of the rich. What’s our response?  “What the attacks do risk doing, however, is that they reinforce certain negatives about the Conservatives. The biggest danger is that the growing Lib Dem campaign for fairer taxation will underline the impression that we are a party of unfair taxation and of unfairness in general. Lord Ashcroft has noted that the perception that we are a party of the already rich, with inadequate understanding of ordinary people, is one of the biggest barriers to people voting Conservative…We can counter this in at least three complementary or alternative ways: First of all we can bust some myths about the existing tax system. Second we can improve the fairness of the tax system even further. Third, we could simply concentrate on economic growth.” Read more: http://is.gd/qJJNVI

Nadine Dorries MP: If we want to bring our members back to conference, we should allow them to air their views:   “Conference is now dominated by lobbyists and business and held in international conference centres such as Birmingham and Manchester. There are no low cost B+Bs looking to extend the season with attractive cut price offers. It’s a conference hotel or nothing. With the cost of a pass, travel, food and accommodation, there is little change from £1000, which means the majority of activists simply cannot afford to attend. Or, so I thought. If anyone caught the news last week and saw the UKIP conference in Birmingham maybe, like me, you saw the people who used to attend our conference sat in the audience? Did you see the row upon row of the men and women who used to deliver our leaflets and canvass our voters? Maybe it suddenly dawned on you why our membership has diminished to extraordinarily low levels as UKIP’s increases.” Read more: http://is.gd/P4fvxu

Lord Bates: Whatever Andrew Mitchell said was wrong – but he has been punished and should be allowed to move on:   “Whatever Mr Mitchell said at the gates of Downing Street it was clearly inappropriate, insensitive and wrong. He immediately offered a fulsome apology directly to those concerned and according to reports in the media this apology was immediately accepted. It has been a wretched couple of weeks for the police service. Had this incident happened at another time it may have been a different story. Had the incident happened at another time, who knows – the gates may have been opened. Mr Mitchell has received his punishment through being publicly admonished by the Prime Minister and humiliated on the front page of The Sun – surely that is sufficient for this type of offence? I for one believe Mr Mitchell should now be allowed to carry on with his important role in government, but told to leave his @*!*#!@ bike at home in future.” Read more: http://is.gd/K5DmOq

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