Chris Heaton-Harris has not had the best 48 hours. The Chief Whip spent Wednesday evening engaged in writing and re-writing an amendment designed to derail Labour’s attempts to trigger an inquiry into whether the Prime Minister lied to Parliament over Partygate. His Thursday then evolved into the farce of a growing number of Conservative MPs refusing to back the amendment, forcing Number 10 into the embarrassing climbdown of scrapping the amendment and allowing a free vote.
Heaton-Harris’ failure to get a hold of the situation, to cajole MPs to stick with the Government, raises series questions about his capacity in his new role. Mark Spencer, his predecessor and now the Leader of the House of Commons, came a cropper over the shambles of the Owen Patterson affair. This new Whips Office was supposed to be more effective, a vital bridge between Number 10 and MPs. And Heaton-Harris, as a former Chief Whip in the European Parliament, was just the man to lead it.
These calamitous last two days understandably have raised fears that little has changed. That the Government was taken aback by the growing popularity of Labour’s motion on Wednesday evening shows a failure to plan for a possible consequence of doubting Tory MPs conversing in bars and lobbies together. Once the Whips authority had visibly begun to sap, the decision to surrender and allow a free vote made Heaton-Harris and his team appear fully powerless.
This is a surprise, to say the least. Heaton-Harris was appointed as Chief Whip following his successful efforts, alongside Grant Shapps, Nigel Adams, and Conor Burns, to rally support for the Prime Minister over ‘cake ambushes’ only a few short weeks ago. Moreover, with his experience in Strasbourg, it was hoped that he could replace Spencer relatively smoothly, as his predecessor’s judgement, commitment, and readiness for the challenge were increasingly facing criticism.
But no dice. It might be a new set of faces placing Francis Urquhart, but they have still struggled to keep the parliamentary rodeo under control. Which raises an intriguing question – just how hard is it to whip Conservative MPs today? Rumours about various backbenchers and the odd dominatrix or two may abound, but here we shall limit our speculation to the purely political.
It is certainly the case that MPs are becoming more rebellious. Almost half – 44% – of all Conservative MPs had rebelled at least once since the 2019 election by February this year. Rebellions were not solely over Covid, or from one wing of the party. Previously loyal long-serving MPs, ‘Red Wallers’ and those in-between have rebelled over legislation ranging from abortion at home to the Police and Crime bills. At least one MP has voted against the Government in around a quarter of all divisions.
Compare that to 2015, in which the last Conservative majority government saw just 18% of backbenchers rebel in the first session. Further back in time, many will have seen James Graham’s excellent play This House, which documents the travails of the Labour and Conservative Whips offices from 1974 to 1979. Even then, with a minority government, a Labour party split between left and right, and an economic crisis, large rebellions were very rare.
Having referenced Del Boy earlier in the week, it is now my chance to go full Uncle Albert. The MPs of the 1970s may have not been as ethnically or sexually diverse as today’s crop, but they were largely united by a shared culture of duty and loyalty inherited from service in the war. Powerful personalities were kept in check by a habit of following instructions, and an understanding of oneself as a loyal foot solider in the forces of either labour or capital. How times have changed.
Today’s Tory MPs have much more in common with the habitually constituency-championing Liberal Democrats. Yes, the 2019 intake provided its share of habitual careerists – Oxbridge, SPAD, private sector, safe seat in Surrey, and up the greasy pole. But, and they are especially those sitting on small majorities, it produced a variety of MPs from unusual – read, normal – backgrounds for MPs, who are much less interested in the ministerial Jag, and much more interested in batting for Blyth or Bishop Auckland.
Social media also plays a role. As well as raising the fears of MPs who don’t wish to be targeted by Labour’s viral ads accusing them of condoning Prime Ministerial law-breaking, WhatsApp has also been a Tory plotter’s dream. MPs now have a constant channel in which to discuss potential rebellions, common interests, and issues over which they want to show their hands, in all manners of subdivisions and group chats. The Red Wall’s ‘WhatsApp Warriors’ are just the crest of a wave.
It is also the case that many in the 2019 intake have not been entirely, well, House-trained. No sooner were new MPs setting up their offices than the lockdowns robbed them of the opportunity to interact with their colleagues in person and learn about the ins and outs of Westminster. As such, doing parliamentary democracy via Zoom hardly encouraged a sense of esprit de corps. Hence why it was usually newer MPs who were the most willing to call for Dominic Cummings to depart in 2020.
Nevertheless, before this becomes solely a sociological study of the average new MP, it must also be remembered that it is not only them with a habit of rebelling. Take a bow, Mark Harper, Steve Baker, Theresa May et al. 12 years in government provides plenty of time for tensions to rise, ex-ministers to fester, and egos to be bruised. As this is a government whose origin lay in failing to back its predecessor, it is hardly surprising if some don’t feel they owe Number 10 a huge amount of loyalty.
So all of these factors merge and meld to produce a situation hardly conducive to a quite life for Heaton-Harris. He may have vaguely resembled Gavin Williamson’s tactic of in choosing to abstain on Labour’s motion, but he must have hoped shepherding a majority of over 70 would be easier than Williamson’s task of overseeing a minority government. But whipping appears to be a harder task than ever before – and an art the Prime Minister will be hoping Heaton-Harris very quickly masters.