After the party, the hangover. Last spring’s poll-defying election win, Labour’s near-obliteration in Scotland – with its implications for the 2020 contest – and the Liberal Democrats’ UK-wide collapse sparked a Tory mood of irrational exuberance, to pinch an analogy from the markets. Then Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in Labour’s leadership contest provided “a little coup de whiskey” (to pinch another).
The Government’s tax credits defeat in the Lords was an overdue corrective – that’s to say, a reminder that David Cameron no longer leads an administration with a working majority of over 70, but one with a formal majority of only 12. This might not have been a problem for him in a more tranquil age. But the backbenches of governing parties are increasingly revolt-prone. As Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart have written, the last five years saw “the most rebellious Parliament of the post-war era”.
Twenty Tory MPs defied the Whips on tax credits last week. The Lords’ defiance of the Chancellor followed criticism of his plans by Conservative MPs – Guto Bebb, Stephen McPartland, Andrew Percy, Johnny Mercer, Heidi Allen, David Davis, Andrew Tyrie, Zac Goldsmith, Boris Johnson. Those were the public critics; there were more private ones. Osborne would have been compelled to water down his proposal in any event, probably in the Autumn Statement, possibly in the New Year.
Today, Ann McElvoy in the Mail on Sunday has details of a Downing Street ‘war council’ held after the Lords vote. Those present included Ed Llewellyn; ‘the bloke David Cameron calls in when no one else has a plan’; ‘media guru Craig Oliver’; Kate Fall, ‘Cameron’s gatekeeper’, and Thea Rogers, ‘the Chancellor’s de facto campaign manager in his Tory leadership bid’. McElvoy reports that ‘a gathering of this urgency has not been convened since the wobbly two weeks before the Scottish referendum’.
Before last May’s election, two others would also have been present: Lynton Crosby, and Osborne’s former Chief of Staff. The former is a general election strategist, not a Chief of Staff, and is thus not available for use. The other is Rupert Harrison, the Chancellor’s own former Chief of Staff. He is missed. During the last Parliament, Osborne combined his Treasury role with a wider strategic one. To this has now been added the EU renegotiation.
There is thus a danger of imperial overstretch. Elsewhere, the Sunday Times and other papers report that the Government’s surveillance plans are to be watered down. The Home Office spent much of last week marching up to the top of the hill (the briefing about the plans was intense); now Downing Street is marching down again. Evidently, Cameron and his team are striving to come to terms with last week’s market correction.
To some, a solution is strong strategic advisers at the centre. But Harrison and Crosby are unavailable. In any event, ConservativeHome draws a different conclusion. As Peter Riddell has pointed out on this site, last April’s manifesto contained 517 commitments. Pledges on this scale cannot be delivered in this Commons without Conservative consensus. They can only be charmed – not bullied – through Parliament to the statute book.
This is why we recommended, pre-election, that Graham Brady should become Chief Whip, and that Cameron should form “a top Tory team based based strictly on seniority” – a proposal we have made before. The traditional form that this took was the Cabinet. But the age in which Cabinet actually debates policy and takes decisions is long gone. In any event, it is simply too big to do so, and the slenderness of Cameron’s majority leaves him in no position to cut its size. So:
- That top team should consist of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Foreign and Home Secretaries, the Leaders of the Commons and Lords, the Chief Whip and the Party Chairman. It should meet at least once a week and agree all major strategic decisions. Since Andrew Feldman is not in the Commons, there is a case for Robert Halfon, his deputy, substituting.
- For at least the last two Parliaments, there has been an internal debate about whether the Whips should be vote managers only or personnel managers too. The time has come for a shift to the second role. Downing Street should ponder Mike Freer’s recent piece on this site about making better use of Tory MPs. He has other ideas to which we will return.
- Two years ago, Mark Prisk argued on ConservativeHome that the Commons has changed, that getting business through it is more difficult, and that the business managers ought to deal with it as their American counterparts deal with Congress – in other words, negotiate with opposition MPs, allow more time and accept more amendments. He is right.