In the early months of the Coalition, I had coffee with an angry MP (ok, that happened more than once, but let’s stick with this particular anecdote). He had answered the call from the Conservative leadership and publicly defended the Government’s line on transferring the ownership of forestry.
He’d taken abusive phone calls about it, and received heaps of pro forma emails from 38 Degrees on the like, but he stuck his neck out because he was loyal. He wanted the Government to succeed, and standing by it on a controversial issue was a way to help that happen.
Shortly after he did so, though, ministers performed a u-turn and dropped the idea. “My arse is left hanging in the breeze,” he said, “Never again.”
He isn’t the only one who has had this unpleasant experience in the last four years. All have learned wariness as a result.
The result was clear during the Miller furore – even those MPs who thought she was hard done by weren’t willing to go on TV or radio and say so, lest they wake up the next day to find that she had resigned.
Today’s news shows they were wise to take that approach. In this case, it’s right that Miller went – but when the Government is embattled on topics on which they’re correct, it’s a serious problem. No matter how many MPs might agree with the official line, fewer and fewer are willing to form a public chorus saying so.
After Mary MacLeod’s torrid day yesterday, which ended with anonymous sources distancing Number 10 from her, we might even see the trend spread beyond the backbenches to the ranks of ministerial aides.
Without an echo chamber, as MPs become both more discerning and more wary when picking the issues on which they’re willing to speak out, Downing Street will have a tougher ride in future crises.