by Jon Ashworth
Any self respecting whip has to go and see the superb This House by James Graham at the National Theatre bringing to the stresses and strains as Labour whips tried desperately to keep the Wilson/Callaghan show on the road while their Tory counterparts plot to bring it all crashing down.
While the lapels might have changed and the culture is certainly less macho, there still is a lot that remain the same. We all work the phone and prowl the corridors to make sure all our flock are there to vote at the right time because simply as John Smith used to say ‘votes is the currency of politics.’
A prime minister can’t govern if he or she can’t command a majority. David Cameron has already lost big major votes on Europe, on the boundaries and everyone knows he would have lost on Leveson. With a group of Tory backbenchers more rebellious than ever Cameron desperately needs a whips office he can trust but who also crucially enjoy a the goodwill of his backbench troops.
But we all know that his troops aren’t happy. Whispers persist that 20 odd Tory MPs have fired off missives of no confidence to the Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee. The rebels openly talk with Tory MPs and Labour MPs (me included) of their frustrations with the prime minister in Commons corridors.
Meanwhile the chancellor who used to be cheered to the rafters by Tory MPs looks increasingly deserted at his Commons outing at Treasury questions and budget debates. Incidentally I’ve noticed more Tory MPs showing up for the Home Office questions.
Perhaps it’s rumblings and low morale that has forced the prime minister to switch John Hayes from his role as energy minister to become his “senior parliamentary adviser.” But it’s not entirely clear how the role differs from the unpaid post of prime minister’s parliamentary private secretary. I’m surprised therefore that Jeremy Heywood has agreed this new post should be remunerated with a ministerial salary. But such matters don’t seem to worry Cameron too much, he has now appointed three MPs to effectively none jobs – “ministers without portfolio” – but all with handsome government salaries. Talk about all being in it together eh?!
I should add in John Hayes’ defence that although I don’t remotely agree with his views – he is after all a leading figure in the Cornerstone Group of Tory MPs – he is nonetheless a canny Tory bruiser who often displays flair at the despatch box. In an age when people bemoan the onward march of identikit politicians he stands out from the crowd. He was also kind enough to personally congratulate me on my promotion to the Labour whips office telling me it was one of the best jobs in Parliament for a new young MP.
I’m not surprised therefore at the suggestion from the ever well informed James Forsyth that Hayes – who remember was the pairing whip on William Hague’s frontbench – actually wanted to be chief whip following Andrew Mitchell’s fall.
But if the prime minister wants to instigate his own rival whipping operation it will be doomed to failure crashing on the rocks of tensions, clashes and rivalries between the actual chief whip and now Hayes as the Tory shadow chief whip.
But the problems for Cameron are deeper. Fundamentally this prime minister has made the wrong choices on the economy hence we have next to no growth, a government borrowing billions more than what was promised and by the next election in 2015 families will be worse off than they were in 2010. Cameron doesn’t need a new Minister for the tea room instead he needs a complete change in direction.
Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South and an opposition whip