Chris White was Special Adviser to Patrick McLoughlin, when the latter served as Chief Whip, as well as to Andrew Lansley and William Hague when each served as Leader of the House. He is now Managing Director of Newington Communications.
In just one week, the House of Commons will have its meaningful vote on the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal. Depending on your point of view, the result of the vote will either lead to security for the UK’s economy, or we will be locked into a deal from which we can never leave.
This article is not about the merits of the deal, but the machinations behind the scenes ahead of the vote on Tuesday 11th December.
The Prime Minister has decided to go for a Brownian masochism strategy – a tour of the four nations, a TV debate, meeting business leaders in Number 10. Yet while her attempt to increase public support for the deal may yet succeed, it is not in the public domain where the vote will be won and lost. Her electorate is not the 38 million people who can vote in a general election, but the 639 MPs eligible to vote on Tuesday evening*.
Paul Goodman wrote eloquently last week on the task the Government faces, and proposed ways that the Government could reach its winning margin of 318 votes (don’t forget to discount two tellers from each voting lobby). The size of the task is vast. Mark Wallace has estimated that 66 MPs oppose the deal, 26 probably oppose it, and another 7 describe the deal as difficult to support. That makes around 100 Tory MPs on the whips’ list on the debit column, including uber-loyalists ranging from Michael Fallon to Robert Syms, and that doesn’t even include those who haven’t publicly declared. Whilst not all of these will end up voting against the Government, unless more than 50 Labour MPs can be swung to support the deal, it is doomed.
Number 10 and the whips’ office realise this. They have set up a war-room in Downing Street to game-plan the different scenarios, and the chief whip summoned all former whips who are still MPs to a meeting in the Commons – when this happens, you know it’s serious. But for all the talk of margins and votes, it is important to remember that each MP is an individual, not a number.
MPs are just like any cross section of society, and it’s just the same with the ‘rebels’ who are planning to vote against the Government. Some can be persuaded to change their minds on policy grounds, others that to vote against the Government will let Jeremy Corbyn into power. Many have ambitions for higher office, more still have local constituency concerns such as the need for a local bypass or improvements to a local hospital. A few will be dazzled by promises not of advancement, but knighthoods or peerages.
Enoch Powell is believed to have said that whips are as necessary a part of Parliament as sewers are of civilisation. More than at any other time the next two weeks will see Number 10, the whips’ office and the Chancellor engaged in the grubbiest, dirtiest chequebook politics possible behind the scenes to try and win this vote. But to do so they need to understand the MPs themselves.
Aside from the two or three senior whips, every whip will have their own ‘flock’ of around 25 MPs. From the moment they are appointed to the Office, each whip’s job is to know intimately the issues affecting that MP. They need to speak regularly to them, understand their ambitions and concerns, know them better than their own partners. That knowledge has to be earned and cannot be gained overnight.
To do all of this, Downing Street and the chief whip and his whips must have credibility, and the knowledge gained from years of experience. The Prime Minister is hampered by the political reality that even should she deliver a deal through Parliament, the Conservative Parliamentary Party will likely remove her from office shortly afterwards, demanding a new leader not tainted by Brexit and a failed General Election. Her political capital, and her patronage, is ebbing away, as evidenced by the hamfisted decision to go outside the political honours process to knight John Hayes, only for him to declare he was voting against the deal regardless.
The Chief Whip and his Office is also restricted in a different way. I wrote earlier this year of the lack of trust between the Chief and his MPs caused by the pairing row. That will have an effect on the whipping operation, and so too will the extraordinary inexperience of the whips themselves. None of the four senior whips – Julian Smith, Chris Pincher, Mark Spencer and Andrew Stephenson – were appointed to a post in the Office before July 2016.
Of the more junior whips, five were appointed in June 2017, five more in January this year, two more in July this year, and two earlier this month. The entire experience of the whips office – 18 MPs – amounts to a total of 21 years and 8 months**. If that sounds a lot, remember Patrick McLoughlin was a whip continuously for 17 years by himself.
I must be clear that no criticism should be laid at the individual whips themselves – they have an incredibly hard job to do – and it is not their fault that the lack of planning and forethought from the Prime Minister and the Chief Whip has led to this position. What is damning is that we have known for two years that this vote is coming, and no effort has been made to retain or bring back any experienced whips in the office for what is the most crucial vote the Government could face. The decision to sack or move the likes of Anne Milton, David Evennett and Robert Syms looks incredibly short sighted.
It is hard to see how the Prime Minister can win. She lost another Minister – Sam Gyimah – over the weekend, and she is making bizarre tactical decisions: touring the country instead of meeting her own MPs, and sending pro-deal leaflets to party members, provoking outrage from Tory MPs who see this as a misuse of party funds.
I fully expect the Prime Minister to lose the vote, and by a substantial margin of between 100 and 200 votes. If so we must watch how Tory MPs split, not just what the final numbers are. If the Prime Minister cannot win more than half her party, or perhaps more than half her 200 backbenchers, she will be under extraordinary pressure.
*650 MPs, discounting 7 Sinn Fein who do not take their seats, and the Speaker and three Deputy Speakers.