A rebellious MP visits his lover and tells his wife that he is working late. The Whips’ Office knows. His whip phones his wife and asks for him.
When told by her that he’s working late, the whip replies: “So sorry – I thought he had gone home”. The MP may be disloyal but he isn’t stupid. He gets the unspoken threat, and falls into line.
The conduct of the whip in question may be reprehensible – discuss – but I doubt that a court of law would find it to have been blackmail.
If, however, the whip had said to an MP: “vote with the Government or we’ll let the press know all about your lover”, that court would doubtless take a different view.
Now consider another story. The same rebellious MP has long wanted a by-pass in his marginal seat. He goes to see his whip, who nods sympathetically.
“No reason why the application in the Better Roads Fund shouldn’t be thoroughly reviewed,” says the whip, before adding with a wink: “So good to see you in our lobby last night, by the way”.
Again, I doubt that a court of law would find such behaviour to constitute bribery – even though, as it turns out, the by-pass was delivered and the MPs’ rebellions ended.
However, if the whip had said: “vote with us – or you can wave farewell to that by-pass,” a court should find him guilty of misconduct in public office.
I can’t remember a Tory MP accusing Ministers, SpAds and whips alike of a variety of these offences So William Wragg’s claim yesterday, delivered in the formal setting of a Select Committte, was nothing less than sensational.
The Hazel Grove MP, a close constituency neighbour of Graham Brady, is the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and so what is known in some Tory circles as “a serious person”.
Boris Johnson, please note, has not dismissed Wragg’s allegations out of hand: “I’ve seen no evidence, heard no evidence, to support any of those allegations”, he said yesterday.
This morning, newspapers report that other Conservative MPs may come forward with similar claims, and evidence. What’s going on and what happens next?
My understanding is that Wragg’s shot yesterday wasn’t the first of a series. For his next step would be to give details and name names, which he is apparently unwilling to do.
Rather, his aim seems to have been to fire across the Government’s bows, and so get the nefarious activity he claims to stop.
But in the present fissile atmosphere at Westminster, almost anything could happen – and readers will remember that ConservativeHome has probed one of these allegations before.
I’d been told that the Treasury was responsible for threats to withdraw public funds from the constituencies of recalcitrant backbenchers.
It confirmed to me that a Tory MP told Rishi Sunak that Steve Barclay had blocked Towns Fund money for his seat, but that the Chancellor “had sorted it”.
But I could find no evidence of threats, and it would be odd were Barclay, Chief Secretary to the Treasury at the time, not to have been involved with regular reviews of spending projects.
“Anyone tempted to menace his colleagues in this way should resist the urge to do so,” I wrote. “The list of Ministers isn’t the cast of To Play the King, even if some of them, now and again, may think otherwise.”
Wragg’s allegations suggest that this warning and others have had no impact, and the Government is now at the mercy of any backbencher who has evidence, and decides to come forward.
The dumping of the whips’ dirty linen in TV reports and on front pages would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. But the culture of celebrity is extinguishing the old culture of discretion.
A generation or so ago, the Whips Office operated at a certain distance from the party leadership. The flavour of it was conveyed by James Graham’s This House, his play about the Labour Government of 1974-1979.
In those years, many of the Conservative whips had served during the Second World War, and some held the Military Cross: Robert Boscawen, Carol Mather.
During the 1990s, the whips office was reported to have stayed neutral during the leadership contest of 1995, which it regarded as part of its proper function.
But during the past ten years, the the whips have had to come to terms with a post-Blair Parliament. And the final vestiges of the Commons’ post-war military inheritance have died.
First, whips. The election of Select Committee chairs removed a source of patronage from the whips, and the proliferation of trade envoys has not, in the balance, made up for it.
And the turmoil of the last ten years or so, in which the Conservatives have elected three leaders, has played havoc with stablity, institutional memory and continuity in the Whips Office.
Next, backbenchers. A significant slice of the “knights of the shires” were content never to hold Ministerial office, and MPs who became Conservative leaders had spent many years in the Commons.
David Cameron’s election as leader after only five years in Parliament marked a turning-point. Last time round, it held an Andy Warhol leadership election: in other words, one with candidates who were famous for 15 minutes.
If there is one in the near future, expect a contest with candidates who will be so for less than 15 seconds – emerging to float their claim in the papers or on social media only to withdraw and back a stronger contender.
See my selfie. I just can’t wait to be King. Get my Instagram alert. I am what I am. Follow me on Twitter. I did it my way. Me, me: look at me.
Social media is part of the way we live now and one must enjoy the world as it is – or risk succumbing to the narcotic of nostalgia.
But the culture of celebrity is blazing through Westminster like the fire of 1834, among backbenchers and Ministers alike, and may do for to its coherence, effectiveness and workability what the old one did to its buildings.
Wragg was throwing the dice when he urged his colleagues to go to the police if necesssary. That his decision will have an effect on the Conservative leadership turmoil scarcely needs saying.
It could have little more and the drama may die down. But the fire of celebrity culture won’t. Iconoclasts will cheer as the old ways burn.