On Thursday, we wrote that Julian Smith’s decision to order several Conservative MPs to break pairs during crucial votes on the Trade Bill had undermined his position as Chief Whip, probably fatally.
We also noted that, rather than dismissing him, Theresa May had instead decided to shuffle two of the then team of eight assistant whips, Stuart Andrew and Kelly Tolhurst, out of the whips’ office.
This strange decision puts a spotlight on what might be the root cause of Tuesday night’s fiasco: that since 2010 both May and David Cameron have reshuffled the whips’ office so often and so thoroughly that they have all but obliterated its institutional memory and effectiveness.
Consider this startling fact: Smith is the only member of the fifteen-strong Government whip team whose experience in the post predates May’s premiership. His two lieutenants, Christopher Pincher and Mark Spencer, were both first made assistant whips in her first reshuffle in 2016
Below them experience gets even thinner. Of the ‘Junior Lords of the Treasury’ Andrew Stephenson, Craig Whittaker, Rebecca Harris, David Rutley, and Nigel Adams were all first appointed whips in 2017, and Paul Maynard not until January 2018. Of the six assistant whips only Mike Freer was appointed in 2017. All the women – Nusrat Ghani, Jo Churchill, Amanda Milling, Wendy Morton, and Mims Davies – took up their posts in January. (All dates from gov.uk.)
Obviously none of the other whips share the blame for Smith’s decision to break pair – indeed several seem, when consulted, to have steered the other MPs he urged to do so back on course. Nor was the Prime Minister’s aim of increasing the number of female whips a bad one.
But it isn’t difficult to see how this extraordinary level of churn would undermine any institution, let alone the whips’ office. According to sources we have spoken to familiar with the role, being a whip is a unique and challenging post and it takes at least six months for a new MP to learn the tricks of the trade – assuming a strong institutional memory to learn from, that is.
At a time when careful management of the House has seldom been more important, this long-term mismanagement is starting to tell. A more experienced chief whip than Smith would probably not have panicked before a crucial vote, as he appears to have done with his unilateral pleas to MPs. With a more experienced team, they might in any event have had a better handle on the numbers ahead of Tuesday’s crunch division on Stephen Hammond’s customs union amendment.
Crucially, they would certainly have had a greater appreciation of the importance of pairing and the traditions of the House, and been more aware of how much more difficult an angry and insulted Commons could make the Government’s life.
Moving Andrew and Tolhurst, who had each been whips for barely a year and six months respectively, suggests that Downing Street has not yet grasped the nature and scale of this problem. The knife-edge arithmetic of the current Parliament invites comparisons with the chaos of 1974-79, but Jim Callaghan’s embattled government lasted as long as it did thanks to the experience – and pre-modern ruthlessness – of its whips.
Of course, May has the luxury of facing an Opposition which has somehow managed to have larger and more spectacular rebellions on Brexit legislation than the Government, which has bought her crucial breathing space on several occasions.
But if she wants to be better prepared for the parliamentary battles ahead, the Prime Minister should make it a priority to re-appoint some experienced hands to the whips’ office. Not only might replacing Smith go some way to placating the House, but his replacement could offer leadership and training to a relatively green team.