By Paul Goodman
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A doctor or a solider or a teacher or anyone else in public service must be able to speak to his colleagues in confidence. Obviously, special circumstances will sometimes apply – if a doctor confessed murdering a patient to another it would be the latter's duty to go to the police at once – but such occasions will be very rare indeed. It follows that the same condition applies to MPs. One MP must be able to talk to a colleague of the same party in confidence about a thousand things: a problem with negotiating a policy through the party apparatus, a difficulty in dealing with a Minister of the same party, how an issue affecing a constituent should be dealt with…and how to respond to a controversial vote in the Commons.
The Guardian today picks up yesterday's interview in the Mail on Sunday with Mark Reckless, the mover of last week's successful amendment on the EU budget. As I pointed out at the time – and contrary to Andrew Rawnsley's suggestion yesterday – the consequences of the vote for the budget were obscure: if you were an MP wanting to see it reduced, there was no clear reason not to vote for Mr Reckless's amendment. The Rochester MP told the Mail on Sunday that "he spoke to a Eurosceptic Cabinet
Minister privately in the Commons corridor during Wednesday's debate and
tried to persuade him to join the revolt". The Minister "seriously considered it…They talked to me about the mechanics and weighed up the pros and cons and agreed to have someone else follow up in a telephone call".
Now it is true that Mr Reckless doesn't name the Minister, and the confidentiality of the conversation isn't breached. But it is compromised. There are only so many Euro-sceptic Cabinet Ministers – Iain Duncan Smith, Owen Paterson, Michael Gove, Philip Hammond, probably Justine Greening, perhaps a few others – and anyone can play the guessing game to which I've just contributed. Fleet Street can thus start a hunt. Someone else involved in the conversations might feel, now the Rochester MP has opened the door on the conversation, that he can pass on the name to a journalist. My guess is that the Minister won't be identified, but were I him I would none the less be angry – because the Rochester MP had put my name at risk of coming out.
Mr Reckless told the Mail on Sunday another detail – that he had a conversation with George Osborne, described as "a close friend from Oxford days". The former was convinced "that the Chancellor 'agreed with me and had made that same case to the Prime Minister earlier but the PM refused to back down'. Mr Osborne merely 'went through the motions' of supporting the Prime Minister and showed 'no strong belief' in the Government's case." It may or may not be the case that the Chancellor agreed with Mr Reckless and was indeed going through the motions. But Mr Osborne should be even angrier than the anonymous Cabinet Minister. He had a conversation in confidence with Mr Reckless and that confidence has certainly been breached.
As a journalist, I delight in what the Rochester MP did. ConservativeHome regularly sets the cat among the pigeons by getting off-the-record stories about what happens in the 1992 Committee or its Executive, and Simon Walters, the Mail on Sunday's Political Editor, got a very good story by getting those on the record quotes from Mr Reckless. As a former Tory MP and present party member, however, I disapprove, because confidential conversations are among the small wheels and cogs without which the Parliamentary Party can't work: if they break down, it stops working. Some readers will say that everything should be out in the open. This is not a principle that they would apply for a moment to their own line of work. Anyway, were I one of Mr Reckless's colleagues, I would be very careful what I said to him in future.