“‘A sound Conservative government,’ said Taper, musingly. ‘I understand: Tory men and Whig measures.’”
If Disraeli were writing Coningsby today, he might instead get Taper to say “Tory women and Whig measures”. Some of these women were displayed on the Treasury Bench at PMQs. There was Liz Truss, the new Environment Secretary, laughing uproariously at a joke. And there was Nicky Morgan, the new Education Secretary, smiling more gently at a witticism.
Disraeli might note, with foreboding, the less cheerful demeanours of two women who were sitting nearer to David Cameron, and have served for longer in his Cabinet: Theresa May, the Home Secretary, and Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland Secretary, who both for long periods looked entirely miserable.
Michael Gove, sitting for the first time in the Chief Whip’s place at the far end of the Treasury Bench, was not quite sure how to look. He attempted a look of tried and settled seriousness, as if nothing suits him better than his new post, and he is really very relieved to have left behind him the classroom squabbles which kept erupting at the Department of Education.
But Ed Miliband began by asking why David Cameron had got rid of Mr Gove from Education. The Prime Minister responded by paying tribute to the many outstanding qualities displayed in the Commons for over 40 years by Sir George Young, the previous Chief Whip: an excursion which enabled Mr Cameron to go on to say that he “wanted to find the very best candidate” to replace Sir George, and was proud to have done so.
A flush of intelligent amusement swept across Mr Gove’s features as he pondered the implications of the Prime Minister’s preposterous yet in its way impregnable defence. Sir George, who smiled with moderate pleasure, now sits on the back benches, and is to leave the Commons at the next election. Mr Gove must have wondered, among cheerier thoughts, whether the role of Chief Whip could for him too be the last he plays in government.
Mr Miliband protested in a querulous tone: “I still don’t know why he sacked the Education Secretary.” But Mr Cameron had wearied of that subject. He was itching to quote something said only yesterday by Harriet Harman, leader of the Labour Party: “I think people on middle incomes should contribute more through their taxes.”
The Prime Minister liked this line so much he said it twice. Miss Harman, never one to shrink from a fight, shouted: “It’s true!” The Conservatives are getting ready to try to frighten us to death about how much tax we would have to pay under Labour.
Around the Chamber stood or sat various of the men who have been sent to the back benches. Jack Straw (Lab, Blackburn) asked “what possessed” Mr Cameron to sack Dominic Grieve as Attorney General, in which role one has to be “ready to speak legal truth to power”. Mr Grieve listened, pale and unhappy, to a question which perhaps answered itself.
No Labour MP asked why Mr Cameron had sacked Owen Paterson, who could be seen standing at the far end of the Chamber next to Liam Fox, who had himself declined the insulting offer of a middle-ranking post in the Foreign Office. To Mr Gove falls the task of managing these ex-ministers, who like him showed an independence of mind which left Mr Cameron and his Downing Street colleagues unamused. Beneath the benevolent manner of this Prime Minister lurks the spirit of a martinet who believes anything less than complete discipline is unprofessional.