By Paul Goodman
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Peter Oborne begins his Daily Telegraph column today with the story of how Alastair Goodlad, the former Conservative Chief Whip, once reproved him for wearing brown shoes. What is it about Tory MPs of a certain disposition and footwear? One once glided up to the late Julian Critchley, disapprovingly murmured "You're wearing suede shoes", and stalked off, presumably clad in his own black ones.
The theme of Peter's column is that the Government Whips Office has been run down by successive Prime Ministers, and that by continuing to do so David Cameron has made a rod for his own back. This is right, and Peter illustrates the point by describing how the Whips move from Number 12 Downing Street has mirrored their own downgrading. But though his arrow thwacks the red bit of the target, I think it just misses the gold.
This is because the Whips are the victim of wider political and cultural change – in two specific ways. First, less patronage is available to them. The chairmen and members of Select Committees are now elected rather than appointed. It is true that the Prime Minister is re-inventing the political knighthood, and that the collapse of Lords reform opens up the prospect of more peerages, but patronage has taken a hit, and Downing Street has come late to using what it has.
Second, the way in which MPs see themselves is changing. Not so long ago, in the age of safe seats and bigger majorities, they tended simply to follow the whip: rebellions were far lower 25 or so years ago. Today, they are far more responsive to their constituents. (This is already the most rebellious Parliament since the war.) This is for the better, but it has a downside. Rising local expectations are changing MPs into social workers – all part of the emergence of the political class, a phrase which Peter himself invented and popularised.