When an MP first elected in 2019 made that claim to us, our instinct was to leave it well alone. That promotions take place because of what critics would call identity politics is scarcely a secret.
In any event, the only MPs from that intake who are formally part of the payroll vote are parliamentary private sectretaries. None are Ministers yet. And with the best will in the world, no-one much knows who they are. The Government’s list is not refreshed between twice-yearly publication.
So it seemed strange to us to imply that the Whips’ Office is taking up virtue sigalling when very few people can see the signal. There were other reasons for leaving the complaint well alone.
Determining who is and isn’t a woman is straightforward. But without wanting to be too pernickety about it, can the same really be said of ethnic minority members?
To explore the point, let’s leave the 2019 intake and go straight to the top. Boris Johnson is an eighth Turkish: his great-grandfather, Ali Kemal, was an Ottoman-born politician.
At what point would the Prime Minister become an ethnic minority politician. If he were a quarter Turkish instead? Half? To confuse the genealogical picture further, he also has German and French ancestry, and describes himself as “a one man melting pot”.
Am answer to the question might be: if the MP concerned is visibly the member of an ethnic minority group. But where does that leave Jews?
After all, Tories have cheerfully been slagging off Angela Rayner all week for suggesting on Twitter that Anas Sanwar is “the first ever ethnic minority leader of a political party anywhere in the UK”. What about Ed Miliband, for starters?
One then moves from the choppy waters of ethnicity to the choppier ones of sexuality. Some MPs are openly gay – there are estimates – others may not be (it has happened). And it is not our business to enquire who does what in their private life.
Nonetheless, we’re here to report anything of significance taking place in the Conservative Party. And to cut to the chase, the largest block of Conservative MPs remains male, white and straight (and middle aged).
So if enough of them think something is a problem, then that something is a problem – at least from the point of view of Downing Street, the whips and CCHQ.
And, sure enough, our MP insisted that he wasn’t the only such MP who felt that he was unfairly being denied the opportunity for promotion.
We have enough evidence to suggest that he is right and that other MPs have been briefing to much the same effect: consider this item from Guido Fawkes, who had a stab at working out some numbers and percentages. So where does that take us? Three points.
First, the MPs concerned insist that they aren’t homophobes, racists or misogynists but, rather, that the Whips’ Office and Number Ten are playing identify politics with promotions. “Some of the women who’ve been promoted actually agree with us,” one said.
Second, Downing Street and the Whips are well aware that a majority of 80 doesn’t provide the cushion that it would have done even during recent years.
The rise of the MP as constituency campaigner, the decline of patronage, the arrival in the Commons of a mass of Conservative MPs who didn’t expect to get elected, and the strange circumstances of Covid have worn that cushion away further.
If enough Tory MPs believe that their promotion prospects are reduced because identity politics is being pursued, they will rebel. Which would be another complication that the Prime Minister doesn’t need.
Third, and perhaps most obviously, the Party has a range of views about identity politics: some Conservative MPs detest it, others think its necessary, others still that it’s an integral part of the modern world.
This helps to explain why Johnson shies away from attempts to enlist him in culture wars. Our reflex is that identity politics is inherently unjust – because, in a kind of politically correct snobbery, it prizes status above merit.
But apply the opposite principle and you soon run into difficulties. Leave aside in passing the point that some of the same people who complain about action to help ethnic minority members simultaneously urge initiatives to help the white working class – another collective.
More to the point, imagine a settlement whereby it was agreed to promote Tory MPs strictly on merit. And that it so happened that no-one from Loamshire deserved a Ministerial job.
In no imaginable world would the whips then apply the principle – at least, not if they wanted to keep Loamshire happy, and the Government majority in the lobbies ticking over.
Furthermore, Conservatives back the view that merit trumps status less than you might think. Very few of us believe in the abolition of the monarchy, to which no-one is appointed on merit, or indeed at all.
We leave to the last the most practical point – on a day during which the second ethnic minority Chancellor in two years, the first being also a Tory, presents his Budget.
Namely, that it’s important in political terms that the Conservative Party “looks like Britain”. Whether or not the 2019 PPS appointments are stretching that idea a bit far, to the point where it begins to disintegrate, is what we journalists call “a developing story”.