Yet again, a meeting of Conservative MPs is due to take place this week (as the Commons returns). And, yet again, it is due to be convened by the Party leadership, not the 1922 Committee. Downing Street is well aware that the ’22 executive sees this arrangement as a usurpation of its right to call such gatherings. Given the jittery state of Party morale at present – UKIP has a record 25-point rating with Survation – and given the urgent need for a united push in Rochester and Strood – James Forsyth this morning raises the possibility of a leadership challenge – these stubborn snubs to the ’22 have about them a obduracy so self-defeating as to be strangely magnificent.
The man in Cabinet best placed to understand the fragility of the Parliamentary Party is the Chief Whip, Michael Gove. I described recently how Gove has eschewed the silence that traditionally accompanies his post – giving interviews, pushing stories, and (since then) making a speech at Party Conference. The story in question claimed that the Chief Whip believes that Nick Clegg’s proposals for recall don’t go far enough, and that he will take a relaxed view of Conservative MPs who want to push them further. More or less the same tale appears today in the Sunday Telegraph.
I’m not a great enthusiast for recall (believing general elections to be the ultimate exercise in it) but it is now necessary to have it on the books: “expenses” proved the point. And since recall we must have, we must have it properly. That means local voters deciding whether or not they want to exercise it, not a committee of MPs making that decision for them. This is the argument that Zac Goldsmith, who is quoted in the Telegraph today, made on this site earlier this year. The Government’s recall plans are Nick Clegg’s. He wants to keep the right to recall literally “in House”.
Gove’s suspicion of them shows that he “gets it”, as the saying goes: in other words, that he understands that it’s not just the mood of Tory MPs that is fragile – it’s our entire Parliamentary system, and three main parties that make it what it is. The Prime Minister will need his counsel badly over the next few weeks since, although it’s early days, the new Chief Whip is winning plaudits for his work – even from what his fellow whips euphemistically describe as “difficult colleagues”. When I wrote that Gove’s move to the role was wacky and zany, what I of course meant (ahem) is that although the move was regrettable it may none the less turn out to be a great success. If, that is, he can avoid more defections on his watch…