It is now much harder to whip MPs into shape
CHIEF Whip Julian Smith urgently needs to find some subtler tools of persuasion than the pair of leather lashes that decorate the mantelpiece of his office at Number Nine Downing Street. The torture instruments, one with a bone handle and the other bearing some nasty metal studs, are kept on show as a symbol of the Cabinet enforcer’s role in disciplining Tory MPs. Yet with less than four days to go until the crunch Commons vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal, Mr Smith is struggling to herd a parliamentary party that is on the brink of anarchy.
Tuesday’s division is threatening to be one of the biggest Government defeats in Westminster history. With more than 100 Tories pledged to vote down the Prime Minister’s agreement in Brussels, the Chief Whip’s task is beginning to look like Don Quixote reaching for the unreachable star.
Mr Smith’s job has been made far harder by a steady erosion of the power of the parliamentary whips over the past two decades. The dark arts of bullying and intimidation deployed in past centuries, and popularised in the character of Francis Urquhart in the House Of Cards novels, are simply not available to put the squeeze on rebels itching to throw out Mrs May’s widely-reviled compact with the EU.
In the past, MPs were often cowed by the feared “black books” kept in whips’ offices that listed secret peccadillos and misdemeanours ripe for public exposure of those who failed to fall into line in crucial divisions. Less censorious public attitudes to marital fidelity and sexual orientation have made such an approach ineffective. Old-fashioned strongarm tactics are also likely to fall foul of Parliament’s tough new rules against harassment and bullying.
EVEN the ultimate threat of calling a general election is off the table thanks to the Fixed-term Parliament Act, which gives a third of the Commons the power to veto a poll earlier than scheduled.
Bribery is also a far less reliable whips’ weapon in the 21st-century Commons. Mr Smith’s predecessor Gavin Williamson said during his spell leading the Government Whips’ Office: “I don’t very much believe in the stick, but it is amazing what can be achieved with a sharpened carrot.” Other than the odd knighthood or Privy Council seat, there are precious few carrots for the Government to hand out to win loyalty.
The Parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009 led to the end of the allowances system that let party leaderships turn a blind eye to backbenchers lavishly rewarding themselves from the public purse in return for voting as instructed. Committee chairmanships, which bring higher salaries, are now elected rather than being handed out. And promises of ministerial jobs are hardly enticing from a Government that few expect to last.
Devoid of both carrots and sticks, Mr Smith and his team have to rely on persuasion alone to try to win over potential rebels. “It really isn’t about threats and inducements any more. It is a matter of reaching out and trying to change hearts and minds,” one source in the Whips Office told me.
HEARTS and minds in the Commons are proving immutable and, if anything, opinion is hardening against Mrs May’s deal. Yesterday rebels were emphasising that the so-called backstop mechanism to protect the open border between Northern Ireland and Irish Republic was far from the only unacceptable clause in the Brexit deal.
Sir William Cash, the veteran Tory Eurosceptic MP, said: “Remember, the backstop is only part of the disaster of the Withdrawal agreement.” Brexiteers complain that the entire agreement fails to deliver genuine national sovereignty.
Mr Smith and his team are determined to keep going with their friendly persuasion efforts right up to the vote at around 7pm on Tuesday, assuming the division goes ahead. Afterwards, the odds are they will end up regretting the lack of a cutting edge available to the modern parliamentary whip. JEREMY CORBYN’S claim that he would rather watch I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! than take part in a live head-to-head Brexit debate with Theresa May has surprised some at Westminster given the show is sponsored by Gibraltarregistered bingo firm Tombola.
Labour has called for stricter curbs on gambling adverts on television. “He’s essentially given the show an additional push, helping the gambling company grow profits,” said one Tory insider. NIGEL FARAGE is expected to take another step towards a comeback to the political frontline next week. The MEP, who quit Ukip after falling out with party leader Gerard Batten, is set to unveil a new grouping in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Monday. “It’s the beginning of a new pro-Brexit party,” said a Ukip source.
SAJID JAVID and Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom piqued the interest of Tory gossips by throwing a joint Christmas drinks reception for MPs. Some are asking whether the soiree by the two Cabinet ministers – who were on opposite sides during the EU referendum campaign – is the sign of a “dream ticket” leadership duo for a future contest. JAMES CLEVERLY gave colleagues a reminder that not everyone in the country is talking about Brexit round the clock. “Reading the political news on my phone on the train to work this morning, the two young women next to me having an illuminating conversation about nipple piercing,” the Conservative Party deputy chairman announced on Twitter.
PERSUASIVE? Chief whip Julian Smith has precious few options