By Paul Goodman
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The culture of the Conservative Parliamentary Party is changing…
Half of all Conservative MPs were elected for the first time at the last election, and Tory backbenchers have rebelled more since it took place than in any previous post-war Parliament. These two facts suggest that a new factor has been added to those which have destabilised the Party over the past 25 years or so (namely, the failure to win an election since 1992, divisions over the EU, and leadership election rules that encourage secrecy and cowardice: no wonder these have taken place at a rate of one every three years or so).
This fresh element is a changing political culture. This Twitter generation of new Conservative MPs is used to modern working practices: flatter working structures, open-plan offices, women in senior positions. Above all, its ethos is civilian. The Whips Office, by contrast, takes its name from the ancient sport of hunting: authority flows from the top down, the atmosphere is overwhelmingly male, those appointed to the office are the "whippers-in" and their charges are the equivalent of hounds. The office may no longer contain war heroes with Military Crosses, but its ethos, despite modernisation, has a smack of the military about it.
…And it has never been harder to be a whip
In short, the new generation of Tory MPs, if tugged one way by their constituents and the other by the Whips, will go with the former (especially since no seat, now, is ever completely "safe", and local Associations are no longer reflexively loyalist). Nor are outspokenness, independence, rebelliousness, impatience for promotion and a yearning for publicity confined to the 2010 intake: Tim Yeo has been just as rude about the Prime Minister as Nadine Dorries has been about the Chancellor.
So it is no less true now than it was almost a year ago that it has never been harder to be a whip. However, the backbench verdict is unanimous: the present whips' office simply isn't up to it. There is a move and mood for whips that treat their charges as fellow team members, taking an interest in their interests and aptitudes, rather than as passive lobby fodder. Backbenchers clearly want a Whips Office that listens more as well as a Downing Steet that leads more. Add all this together, and you can understand why an observant Whip told Tim Montgomerie recently that the Conservative Parliamentary Party is now unmanageable.
Enter Andrew Mitchell, a Tory MP of the old school…
Patrick McLoughlin was widely blamed for the Whips' shortcomings. I repeat that these were more despite him than because of him, and believe that his good sense and knowledge will be hard to replace. The man David Cameron has selected for the task is Andrew Mitchell – deftly steered, it seems, by George Osborne, to whose cause Mr Mitchell is reportedly signed up. I worked with the latter on the David Davis leadership campaign and, perhaps more tellingly, on the Work and Pensions Select Committee: he was an excellent, supportive committee colleague.
The three most important points to grasp about the new Chief Whip are, first, that he is highly intelligent (you don't get to be a director of Lazards if you're not); second, that he is a survivor (to move from being Mr Davis's campaign manager to Mr Cameron's Chief Whip indicates a certain unsinkability) and, third, that he is rather an old-fashioned model. A former army officer and merchant banker, the son of an MP and a collector of fine wine, Mr Mitchell has the feel and flavour of a Conservative MP from the era of Francis Urquhart, which indeed was when he was first elected. His father's politics were a bit right of Tory centre and his own are a bit left of it.
…Who must now whip a party very different from that which contested the Maastricht Bill
But his views are less important than his disposition. He is one of those men who imposes himself on his surroundings: his Commons Office, when he shadowed the International Development brief, was piled high with topical reading and decorated with family photos – and, indeed, the occasional snap of himself. (His self-confidence shows in his elegant, flowing handwriting.) 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.
Hence the jolly school tales since the weekend about "Thrasher" Mitchell – "‘I was a stern disciplinarian" – and twittered reminders that his school was also Flashman's. None of this should be taken too seriously. But the difference between the Parliamentary Party he helped to whip 20 years ago, as part of John Major's whips' office during the Maastricht Bill, and today's Parliamentary Party should be taken very seriously indeed, especially by him. Douglas Carswell and Ms Dorries may not seem, to the eyes of a Ministerial survivor of that period, to be all that different from Christopher Gill and Theresa Gorman, but the context is different – dramatically so.
Mr Cameron will have made a catastrophic misjudgement if he has ordered Mr Mitchell not to deploy
his charm but to wield the cane
The view of some Conservative MPs yesterday evening was that the appointment is, frankly, a mistake. There is no good reason why this should be the case. Mr Mitchell was not the most obvious candidate to become Shadow International Development Secretary in 2005. But he has been a great success in the post in both opposition and government, marrying his banking expertise to hard grind, clear thinking and a grasp of the issues: he has been particularly robust in reminding his department that it is part of the civil service, not a vehicle for lobby groups.
In short, the new Chief Whip has a track record of adapting to the times, and will surely strive to do so in his new role – unless, that is, he has been instructed otherwise by Number Ten. This is where those backbenchers may have a point. Cameron aims to tame back benchers in reshuffle, the Telegraph says this morning. The Prime Minister has appointed a disciplinarian to tame rebellious Tory MPs, reports The Times (£). Mr Cameron is right to want to restore the firepower of the Whips Office. But he will have made a catastrophic misjudgement – one which will blight his government – if he has ordered Mr Mitchell not to deploy his charm but to wield the cane.