Amidst all the shrieking and wailing amongst Conservative MPs who have convinced themselves it is essential they take a principled stand for a non-binding motion making vague proposals on an issue that is of significant importance to a tiny fragment of the electorate, some good points are being made.
One can be found in this piece by James Forsyth, in which he effectively argues that the Conservative whippping team is not fit for purpose.
I suspect Mr Forsyth is right, but not because the current batch of Tory whips are ignorant buffoons, or only semi-competetent leg-breakers and arm-twisters. In all likelihood, they’re the same blend of rising starts and seasoned Parliamentary machinists that have always made up the Tory whips office. No, It’s not that they messed up. Rather, it’s that the game of whipping done changed.
Listen to the voice of the anonymous Tory MP quoted by James Forsyth: “He complained that his whip had only spoken to him once in the last 12 months, had no idea what interested him and just assumed he would vote for the government regardless of what his constituents or conscience told him. ”
Do you know what that is? That’s the sound of an MP who knows that it would take an awful lot more than the occassional rebellion to lose the whip and with it lose his (or her) seat. What’s more, it’s the sound of someone who suspects that a reputation for independence of spirit and vote will go down rather better with the media, their electorate and their constituency than a resutation as a loyalist, and therefore fears the whips only insofar as they fear a lack of preferment. That anonymous MP is not alone. You can think what you like about Douglas Carswell, Nadine Dorries, or Peter Hollobone, but their backbench life must look remarkably enjoyable to most Tory MPs, especially those who are beginning to doubt that their career propsects are particularly great.
This changing texture of Parliamentary discipline impacts all the parties. We see in in the gradual increase in Parliamentary revolts, in the outspokeness of Backbenchers, in the freedom to reveal themselves as individuals is embraced online, in blog-posts, in local campaigns.
Peter Oborne was wrong. The era of truly professional politicians has not led to servility, but instead created a class of MPs who are not willling to trade away their votes for a quiet life, and who have made themselves so secure in their constituencies that they do not fear the wrath of the centre.
Perhaps this is why rebelliousness is increasing in all main parties, a point Professor Phil Cowley is repeatedly dragged onto Radio 4 to make to errant political dyspeptics of all shades of opinion. I suspect, but cannot prove, that much of this is driven by MPs who have arrived in parliament via a route that grounded in their community, not directly by leader-patronage, which creates a group of MPs who have slaved for years to get into parliament and thus have no desire to be simple lobby-fodder when they get here.
The Boundary commission may even be exarcerbating this trend. Who do you think Tory members are more likely to choose in a contested selection- a colourless loyalists with a letter from the Chief, or a spiky press release machine who stands up for what members want to hear?
All this is precious little comfort to Number Ten, though they might enjoy knowing that the biggest Tory European rebellion ever shows that they are merely the victims of historical factors, not their own incompetence. The question is, what to do about it?
Here’s my suggestion: Abolish the Chief Whip, and introduce a Parliamentary Maitre’D instead.
I don’t mean abandon parliamentary discpline, or abandoning the Three line whip, but changing the way Government approach discipline. The role of the Whips office at the moment is confined to arranging parliamentary business and ensuring people turn up and vote the right way. There’s little or no attempt to manage the general happiness of individual MPs, or of understanding when or how they might be allowed off the leash in order to impress the punters.
If the whips were abolished, and a PM created a “Parliamentary Affairs Department”, a powerful PM could fold in the Leader of the House and Whips office with parts of the Cabinet office, and by giving the job to one of the big beasts of the government, not an anonymous fixer, they’d create a department whose job it was to ensure that all other departments were alive to the concerns of the backbenches. Ideally, that big beast would be a leader loyalist – whoever had managed their leadership campaign, say, so someone known to have the Leaders’ ear.
The new Department would have the clout to summon Junior Ministers and read them the riot act when not being soictious of Backbench concerns, and since such a department would be intimiately involved in running reshuffles, the Junior Ministers would jump. they would be tightly integrated with both the Leader’s political office and the Party machine, listening to the hum of the political wires out in the country as well as in Parliament.
Such a department would also have responsibility for the pastoral care of MPs – the things like offices, securing speakers for annual dinners and photo’s with the leader, getting meetings, being provided with information, all the things that help make life bearable for busy backbenchers. This would lead to the kind of active political management that we expect in US “Legislative affairs”, but in the UK has been mainly confined to an informal, usually poorly resourced, operation between the Leader’s office, the parliamentary party and the Central office. None of the major parties manage their MPs well, in terms of non-vote matters, this is a potential area for huge improvement.
Finally, changing the structure of the Whips office would create the chance for British POlitics to adapt to the emerging reality of a more US-style attitude to legislative discipline. Here’s a proposal for any Party leader willing to be bit brave: Accept openly that sometimes MPs will vote against the whip, and agree to effectively license rebellion on matters of local or individual concern where agreed in advance. In return, ask your Parliamentary Party to agree a “Four line whip” – a vote on an essential matter on which the government is entitled to expect the support of all MPs, which can only be imposed after a debate and vote at either the ’22 or the PLP. If a “super-whip” is then breached, this becomes a matter for serious discipline, to the extent of suspension of whip on the motion of the Leader.
So, here’s my suggestion to Mr Cameron, If you want fewer rebellions, abolish the whips.