The conventional wisdom has been that with Conservative MPs in lockdown – and so scattered to the four winds – the Tory whips would have fewer disciplinary problems to manage.
The opposite has turned out to be true, as the U-turn on the NHS surcharge showed. The driving reason for it wasn’t the inquisitorial genius of Keir Starmer but, rather, the clamour among the WhatsApp groups used by Tory MPs. These are turning out to be the grandmother of all nightmares for the whips.
“It all gathered pace during Brexit,” a former senior whip told ConHome. “There was a Clean Global Brexit Group. A Spartan Group. And goodness knows what besides – all working themselves up into a lather”.
This is one thing when the whips are meeting daily in a room, and when they’re then able to work the committee corridors, tearooms, lobbies, bars and Portcullis House, together with their helpers or stooges (choose your label according to taste).
It’s quite another when team meetings must be carried out by Zoom or suchlike, and when the WhatsApp group jungle drums are beating themselves into a frenzy.
The China Research Group is up and running, and its provisional wing will make energetic use of WhatsApp. There has already been a backbench rebellion over Huwaei – a mere shot across the bows from a formidable band of MPs spanning the depth and breadth of the party.
So technology isn’t turning out to be the unalloyed plus for the executive that some thought it would, with virtual voting depriving MPs of their chance to worry at each other in the lobbies about the executive is up to.
Instead, the WhatsApp groups can have a self-reinforcing effect – whipping up concerns or discontent like a sudden storm at sea. A majority of 80 bolsters Johnson’s Government against the rebellions that capsized Theresa May’s. But there will be more trouble for him from where yesterday’s came from.