by Jon Ashworth
Tuesday was not a good day for the Tory whips.
There were early signs that not all was well on the Tory benches at Tuesday’s Treasury questions. In Westminster terms, the monthly joust between Ed Balls and George Osborne is usually box office and true to form the Labour benches were packed. Yet strangely the Tory benches were sparse and subdued.
A complete contrast with two and half years ago when adoring Tory MPs would try desperately hard to impress Osborne asking helpful questions here and guffawing at every “gag” there.
But now what a turnaround.
As each day goes by and we hear more grim news about an economy that continues to flat line while government borrowing and debt continues to increase, it seems Tory MPs are literally deserting their chancellor. Future leaders now talked of are Norman, Afyirie, Johnson and Gove, not Osborne anymore. No wonder his punch lines this week were greeted with tumbleweed on the Tory benches.
Perhaps Tory MPs were saving themselves for the debate later that afternoon on the boundaries and boy did they vent their spleen. Take Portsmouth Tory MP Penny Mordaunt accusing the Liberal Democrats of “spite, pettiness and self-interest”, while at the same time appearing oblivious to the fact that the pain she was experiencing from this Lib Dem “betrayal” was as a result of the gun she had taken and fired at her own foot as a Tory ringleader of the Lords rebellion last year.
Tory MP after Tory MP spluttered about the impertinence of an unelected chamber telling the Commons how it’s elected members’ constituency boundaries should be drawn. The self same Tory MPs who had defended and voted for an unelected House of Lords just months earlier.
In a bravura performance the Liberal Democrat MP (and ex Lord) John Thurso put all such Tories in their place reminding his “friends on the government benches, in the mildest manner possible, that they have got what they wanted: the great, the good, the wise, the academic, the apolitical, the ex-public servants and the generals, whom they strove so hard to protect, have come together in their wisdom and given us amendment 5. I beg the House to support it.”
As the division bells rang we knew on the Labour side things were looking good as we marched through our lobby not only with the Liberal Democrats and almost all other parties but Tory rebels too. In fact I’m surprised there was not more Tory rebels as since the vote a number of Tory MPs whose seats were set to be abolished or radically changed have already approached Labour members in the tearoom thanking us for saving them.
As the result sank in, the prime minister looked furious – we know because oddly he was hanging around outside the Labour whips’ office after the vote. Why his minders hadn’t whisked him away is anyone’s guess though it’s probably indicative of the shambolic nature of this particular Number 10 operation.
Both William Hague and Ken Clarke (whose seat was set to be radically altered) missed the vote because of international issues and so were apparently “slipped” while junior justice minister Helen Grant missed the vote completely failing to turn up.
It hasn’t been a good start to the year for Ms Grant, the Justice minister had managed the night before on a different division to both vote in favour and against the same amendment in the same vote.
So as we head back to our constituencies we leave behind us demoralised troops on the Tory benches and Westminster corridors alive with plotters and schemers all gossiping and speculating about Cameron’s leadership.
But while the coalition now tear themselves apart, with the economy in the doldrums and families struggling to make ends meet it’s actually all just very depressing for the country who have to continue to put up with this lot.
Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South and an opposition whip