Whip’s Notebook: Oh what a night

by Jon Ashworth

Supporters of a democratic House of Lords can take cheer that on Tuesday night the Commons voted by 462 to 124 give the House of Lords reform bill a second reading. But what a night. What a rebellion.

92 Tory MPs rebelled against their leader’s position. That’s a bigger rebellion than the recent EU referendum vote and almost the biggest Tory rebellion post-war.

From the start of the debate on Monday, Labour MPs have witnessed a slow motion car crash unfold for the Tory whips and No 10 which culminated, apparently, in an angry exhausted red faced Prime Minister angrily jabbing the chest of a leading rebel late at night in the corridors of the Commons. No wonder influential Lib Dem blogs are comparing David Cameron to John Major.

Should last night’s rebellion have come as much of a surprise to the prime minister and his Liberal Democrat colleagues?

Probably not.

For weeks Tory MPs have sidled up to me in the tea room and elsewhere asking for guidance on what Labour’s tactics would be. Fortunately our position was and had been always clear: to vote against the programme motion but support democratising the Lords and so vote in favour of the bill at second reading.

It’s been less straightforward on the government side with question marks over whether the government would win a vote on curtailing the timetable for debate, the so called programme motion.

On Monday, rumour had it the Tory whips were so worried about losing the programme motion that they were encouraging dissident MPs to vote in favour or abstain but rebel on second reading. But the Tory whips’ strategy was soon to be shot to pieces.

Early on Tuesday afternoon, Nick Clegg was still defending the programme motion but minutes later the Leader of the House Sir George Young opening the debate was forced to withdraw the very same programme motion.

Sir George tried to blame the Labour opposition for government’s failure to build support for the programme motion, an incredible claim later torpedoed by leading Tory rebel Jesse Norman who helpfully pointed out to Sir George that the government had been forced to withdraw it due to opposition on the Tory benches.

The reality is Jesse Norman, Sir George Young and the Tory whips will all have been well aware that by Tuesday mid-afternoon they faced losing the programme motion by a majority of more than 100.

Throughout the two days of debate we all looked on open mouthed as ambitious new Tory MPs who ought to be expecting promotion made clear their deep opposition to the government’s proposals. Two PPS’s, Conor Burns and Angie Bray to cheers from their colleagues on the backbenches announced their intention to vote against the government and resign or be sacked. Burns and Bray are not by any means serial members of the awkward squad quite the opposite in fact, both bright well connected party insiders who the whips ought to have been able to rely on.

The eagle-eyed watching coverage of general election 1992 a few weeks back on the parliament channel will have spotted Bray as the young CCO press officer working for Chris Patten in Bath for example.

So as the debate went on it was clear that even after withdrawing the programme motion the Tory whips had a huge problem on their hands. Tory MP after Tory MP denounced the bill while Liberal members looked some downcast other just furious.

Then the moment of “interruption” came at ten when we voted. At one end Tory whips desperately tried to cajole their troops into the aye lobby, while rebel ringleaders such as Bernard Jenkin cajoled them into the no lobby.

As MPs trooped through and voted, whips of all parties huddled together ensconced in the aye lobby peering through the windows to count those coming out of the no lobby.

The rebels were clearing enjoying themselves with much cheering of one another and back slapping.

This wasn’t just the usual suspects like Peter Bone and Philip Hollobone. Finchley’s Mike Freer described this merry band as the ‘mainstream middle’ of the Tory Party.

In addition to Norman, Bray and Burns out of that no lobby trudged 89 rebels including ambitious newby A Listers such as Nadhim Zahawi, Penny Mordaunt, Nicola Blackwood, Richard Harrington, Rory Stewart, Dan Byles the list goes in.

In total 47 (including 1 teller) rebels were from the 2010 intake about roughly one in three of that intake. Additionally another 11 Tories from the 2010 intake didn’t vote on second reading at all.

So overall after stripping out the Tory pay roll vote, only 80 backbench Conservative MPs voted the same way as David Cameron on Tuesday night. No wonder clever former frontbencher David Ruffley noted today that the rebellion is a “big deal”.

So as the dust settles I’m sure my opposite numbers in the Tory whips office will be studying those statistics carefully. They will know that don’t make for happy reading which is perhaps why the palace of Westminster is alive with rumours of Tory whips being a bit too heavy with rebel MPs after the vote on Tuesday night.

On the other hand Tory MPs told me earlier in the week that the Tory whipping operation was half hearted with mixed signals coming from the centre. No wonder it’s all become such a shambles for the government

It’s certainly true different Tories have different stories of how the whips were trying to win support. I’m told one tactic was to remind rebels the reshuffle was just around the corner, surely they didn’t want to risk their chances of preferment by voting against the whip? Rumour has it this worked on at least one wavering rebel, who ended up voting with the Government.

But at the same time also driving some of the dissent is the realisation there will only be a handful of places for men in any reshuffle. David Cameron has pledged to move towards ensuring a third of his ministers are women.

So once Osborne and Gove’s chief lieutenants, Matt Hancock and Nick Boles have inevitably won promotion there isn’t much room left for any other new men joining the government. In that context why vote for something you don’t agree with when jobs are only available if your surname is Boles or Hancock?

But having made the threat, the prime minister now needs to decide when to have this much anticipated reshuffle. Given he has just decided to postpone a vote on timetabling his Lords reform bill until the autumn, does he now try to buy off some rebels?

But to make space means he will be forced to contend with a load more disgruntled ex-ministers who, once deprived of a ministerial cars, may have no qualms seamlessly moving from government to rebel.

So as we edge close to the summer recess and the Prime Minister goes on his holidays to chillax with Fruit Ninja he is undoubtedly weakened.

A third of his party is in rebellious mode, his Lib Dem colleagues are furious and he’s now in a bind over his upcoming reshuffle and how to timetable the Lords reform bill. As Ed Miliband reminded him at PMQs, Cameron used to think he would be rather good at being Prime Minister. Where did it all go wrong?

Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South and an opposition whip

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3 Responses to “Whip’s Notebook: Oh what a night”

  1. swatantra says:

    Labour’s position is as clear as mud. HoL Reform is long overdue and now is the best time to do it, otherwise it’ll never get done. A bit more statesmanship please from the Party.

  2. Rich says:

    Have to agree with Swatantra. Voting for second reading but against the programme motion is only clear in one respect: it is obviously a cheap attempt to whack the coalition. But what is the end game with respect to Lords Reform? To exact concessions, such as a referendum, in exchange for supporting a later programme motion? To scupper it for the time being with the expectation that Labour will eventually do it after it gets back into government? Labour deserves a grown-up as its leader, as does Britain; to provide that, Miliband needs to either grow up or get out of the way.

  3. swatantra says:

    Have to agree with Rich. We have a Front Bench lacking in any Statesmen or Stateswonen whatsoever of the calibre of Blair Brown and Darling, to name but a few. What we have is a Front Bench of boys in short trousers and girls in gymslips running around like headless chickens.

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