Parliament means Party, and Party means Whips. In other words, MPs must always form themselves into political parties, which in turn will require whipping, if the executive is to work in our system of Parliamentary government. It follows that Prime Ministers have both a selfless and a selfish reason for taking special care of their whips. If they don't, coherent government becomes impossible (the selfless reason) and their own position becomes endangered (the selfish one). And since it has never been harder to be a Whip – given the transformation of MPs into constituency champions, and their consequent rebelliousness – David Cameron must zealously care for their condition and morale.
The Prime Minister's EU referendum bill gambit was rushed out to quell the threat of a large number of Conservative MPs voting for John Baron's amendment to the Queen's Speech. Over 100 did – so the manoevre failed. That's roughly half of all Tory backbenchers. Blame must therefore lie either with the Whips, for failing to minimise the rebellion, or with Cameron himself, for failing to tell them to do so. The guidance consistent with both minimising the rebellion and good party management would have been to offer one of those free votes that aren't really free votes at all. Both Ministers and backbenchers would have been encouraged by the Whips to abstain, to drive down the number of Tory MPs supporting the Baron amendment.
One Conservative supporter of the amendment told me that he was given no guidance at all, and that at least one Parliamentary Private Secretary was seen hovering in the lobbies, watching and waiting to see which way his colleagues would jump. Others report much the same tale. It is bleakly clear that the blame for this breakdown of order lies not with Sir George Young – who has come back as Chief Whip to do the Prime Minister a favour – but with Cameron himself. in London, William Hagu was reported as advising Tory backbenchers to vote against the amendment; in America, the Prime Minister said he was "intensely relaxed" about the outcome. Sending out mixed and muddled messages in this way would leave even the best Whips' Office rudderless.
The condition of the Whips is more than a piece of Westminster arcana. A breakdown in its reach and reputation is like wood rot: it gets into almost everything that government does – into its ability to get its business, the presentation of bills, the conduct of Minsters, the coherence and efficiency of Whitehall as well as Westminster. Cameron has managed his Whips Office badly. Too many of its members have been sacked, thereby devaluing its status as one of the few remaining institutions through which patronage can be exercised. Able MPs – Dominic Raab, Ben Wallace, Rob Wilson – have turned down jobs in it. This is not a sign of an institution with a rising reputation.
It was clear even before this evening that the Prime Minister's carelessness with it has helped to leave him with no guaranteed majority on EU-related matters in the lobbies. A sure economic recovery is not in place – though see today's Times - and a contentious spending round is coming up. Many Conservative MPs are striving against the restraints of Coalition, and some want shot of it altogether. I suspect that a moral of this evening's shambles is that some of the Whips have given up on Cameron altogether. I cling to believing that a leadership challenge is more unlikely than not, but this is a hazardous situation for him. He could replace Sir George with an experienced, older Euro-sceptic (Liam Fox?) or an able, energetic younger one (Greg Hands?).
But cunning moves on the Parliamentary chessboard will be useless if Downing Street doesn't offer leadership to its Whips Office. And if it doesn't offer leadership to its Whips Office, it won't be able to offer it to the rest of its MPs. Ministers are doing many good things. Michael Gove is turning many schools into academies. Theresa May's closing of loopholes has helped to cut net immigration. Eric Pickles is cutting costs in local government, and returning some freedoms to local councils. Iain Duncan Smith's universal credit is a noble though hazardous enterprise. Francis Maude has made a start in scaling back waste. But all this is being put at risk by tactics that wouldn't be out of place in an episode of Blackadder.
Cameron lavished part of his political capital on trying to halt the Baron amendment. He failed. The amount of it left in the bank is limited. The legacy of this debacle is the proposed Private Members Bill to write the proposed In/Out referendum into law – which will require infinitely more skilful handling than he showed this evening. It's true that the Prime Minister's European troubles are very far from all being his own fault. Earlier today, I wrote that some Euro-sceptic MPs have all the rationality of a Shakespearian mob. This evening, the mob ran riot. ("It is no matter. His name’s Clarke. Pluck but his name out
of his heart and turn him going.") Cameron can't be expected to make the unreasonable reasonable.
But he can be expected to manage the reasonable effectively – and that category, remember, includes the overwhelming majority of Conservative MPs. He's the Prime Minister. He's the Party leader. That's part of what he's there for. Even abroad and unsighted – how many Prime Ministers have run into political trouble at home while absent abroad? – he should be doing better than this. During the last week, many people, myself included, have likened the Prime Minister, in his handling of events, to John Major (though Ed Miliband is certainly no Tony Blair). If there are many more episodes like this one, the comparison will be with Lord North. A picture of that gentleman illustrates the top of the page.