“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, Tolstoy wrote, in the opening sentence of Anna Karenina. The Conservative Parliamentary Party is a family (of sorts). And it is always unhappy in its own way.
Most of its members want to be Ministers. All will have daydreamed about being Prime Minister. Only one can be at any time, assuming that the Tories are in government, and there are only so many Ministerial jobs to go round.
All will be unhappy about what the leadership is doing some of the time; and some will be unhappy about what it is doing all of the time. Issues of principle and belief will often be the driving reason. Add frustration, spousal discontent and unhappiness to the brew, and you have a recipe for trouble.
Conservative MPs complained about Theresa May’s inertia and paralysis; David Cameron’s alliance with the Liberal Democrats; John Major’s five year-long car crash; about Margaret Thatcher – to the point of ousting her. And so on, all the way back, talking of ditching leaders, to Robert Peel and beyond.
But there is reason to believe that the relations between Boris Johnson and Conservative MPs pose are especially challenging. There are three sets of problems. Those that can be fixed easily; those that may not get fixed at all – and one that may be beyond fixing altogether.
First, then: those that can be fixed easily. No modern Parliament has previously been sent home, not even during either World War. Much of the current discontent, which surfaced during the Dominic Cummings contretemps, has arisen because most MPs are pack animals and, like other kinds, behave oddly when isolated.
Here are roughly ten action points for Number Ten and the Whips now that Westminster is back. The latter can kick off with a big listening exercise. The former can start calling groups of unhappy ones in for meetings with senior Ministers who have a big role in the anti-virus drive: step forward, Michael Gove.
Johnson can invite small clusters of MPs and their spouses to Chequers for socially distant drinks, which will get easier as the lockdown relaxes. The Whips can study their list of the disaffected – and the Government’s own of trade envoys and special ambassadors can then be refreshed.
The 1922 Committee could play its part by reviving policy committees to shadow each Government department, which would give backbenchers with special interests a platform from which to make their case. An MP from each county or city could take responsibility for convening his colleagues’ collective relations with government.
The ’22 could also form a working group to relay concerns about the new arrangements to the Leader of the House: if one had been in place, the row about extending proxy voting to the shielded, for which our columnist Robert Halfon has made an unanswerable case, might have been avoided.
As others have suggested, Johnson could appoint an Andrew Mackay-style PPS with special responsibility for sniffing out trouble. Given the sensitivity of MPs in the former Red Wall seats, he might try a pre-2019 MP with a record of taking a seat off Labour. Eddie Hughes, anyone?
The Whips and Downing Street could make more use of all five MPs who took Midlands and Northern seats in 2017 in any event. All this could be done and some of it perhaps will be. We now come to the second set of problems: those that may not get fixed at all.
Number Ten briefed during January’s reshuffle that it was selecting on the basis of three factors: loyalty, not complaining to the media, and competence. However, that last factor looks a lot more like compliance: the model is of the centre instructing Ministers. Much of the Cabinet is consequently weak.
Johnson is scarcely the first Prime Minister to try running government in this way. Tony Blair began the process and Nick Timothy completed it, briefly creating a centralised command and control system. Johnson has revived it under Cummings.
It is a Tory fundamental that such systems don’t work, and the David Cameron model of government, with a balance between a strong centre and vigorous Ministers such as Gove, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith has much to recommend it.
Johnson is reportedly planning a July reshuffle. This would give him a chance to appoint on merit and give the new Ministers their head. ConservativeHome will return to the theme soon and suggest some names. Our member panel’s top choice last month was Jeremy Hunt.
Now to the problem that may be beyond fixing. Others have identified issues thrown up by December’s astonishing Red Wall gains. One arises from the long change that is turning MPs into taxpayer-funded professional politicians – and full-time time campaigners in their seats – rather than privately-funded elected representatives.
Fewer of these new MPs seem to want to be Ministers than in previous intakes. In one way, that’s a plus for the system, because there will consequently be fewer agitating for jobs. In another, it’s a minus, because fewer will also put the whip before their constituents.
Which is a good thing, most will say. Up to a point. MPs have a responsibility to lead public opinion and not simply follow it. And even those who disagree will concede that MPs should interpret what their voters want correctly. This takes us to the crux of the problem.
“Some of my colleagues have no experience of Just Saying No,” an old Parliamentary hand told ConservativeHome. He is right, and not because recent intakes are any more or less tough-minded than their predecessors. Rather, because current Parliamentary circumstances are unique.
Johnson was elected to deliver Brexit. Which he has done – and the country is in his debt for both doing so and trouncing Corbyn. But what was the rest of his programme? Turn to the Conservative Manifesto headline pledges for an answer. Fifty thousand more nurses! Twenty thousand more police! Fifty million more GP appointments!
Leave aside for a moment the practicability of all-round higher spending in the wake of the Coronavirus. There is an even bigger issue at stake. Whatever happened to reform? Both the Thatcher and Cameron Governments took it as a given that Britain’s economy and public services must deliver more effectively as our population gradually ages.
With some constitutional exceptions, Johnson ducked reform last December, and one understands why: like all his predecessors, Conservative and Labour alike, he had an election to win. Instead, the big theme is “levelling up Britain”.
But neither “boosterism” nor reform can ultimately be delivered if MPs are incapable of saying No – however tactfully they dress that Ulsterish word up. No to 38 Degrees’ clickbait write-ins. No to people who aren’t constituents but clog up their e-mail boxes. No to those who haven’t a reasonable case to make.
No to those who say “I’ve always voted Conservative” – and haven’t. No to those who claim “I’ll never vote Conservative again” – and will. No to those whose answer to every problem is simply: more money. If MPs can’t sometimes deploy the N-word, Johnson won’t be able to deliver the G-word: government. And nor will anyone else.