Whip’s notebook

by Jon Ashworth

It got no publicity, not even in my local paper, but a month ago I joined the front bench as a whip. I never expected it. Indeed, on the day Ed called me I was out shopping with my wife and baby in Leicester’s High Cross Centre. I didn’t notice numerous missed calls on my mobile till much later that afternoon. When offered the job, though flattered, I wasn’t even sure whether I should accept it – after all I’ve only been an MP for five minutes (well 6 months), I’m no expert on Parliamentary procedure and still trying to find my way around the Commons.

But here I am a month or so later: a member of her majesty’s opposition whips office, working with Sadiq Khan’s justice team.  That means not only am I busy reading up on my Erskine May, beginning to understand what a programme motion actually is, I’m also trying to get to grips with the government’s legislation on justice issues.

The other week was my first big moment whipping our side on the legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders bill in the Commons for report stage and third reading (i’m even talking like a whip now). We had three days for debate and scrutiny in the Commons before sending it off to be considered by their Lordships. It ought to have been a reasonable amount of time but the government introduced something called an instruction motion at the start of proceedings, allowing the government to effectively introduce pages and pages of new clauses, new schedules and new amendments – in other words reams of new policy which hadn’t been debated, discussed or seen by anyone previously. Consequently, huge sections of the bill were never properly scrutinised by the House.

This government isn’t the first to do this and probably won’t be the last. All governments strive to set the agenda, whether Parliamentary or media.  Government departments have a whole apparatus in place to help do that as much as possible. News grids will be drawn up in every departmental press office. Special advisers, the private office and others will have meetings and someone will be tasked with liaising with number ten. Then the whole process will be repeated again in number ten with a weekly grid meeting, this time with No 10 press officers, special advisors, other officials, possibly a few politicians and presumably some of the Deputy Prime Minister’s advisors too.

But despite all the effort, all the meetings, all the grids, it doesn’t always turn out the way they want. Take the unfolding fiasco at the UK borders agency that hit the home secretary last week, and which dominated much of the week’s news. How frustrating for that junior minister and eager press officer in DEFRA who had hoped to make a big splash with the announcement on England’s bathing waters (excuse the pun). It would have been the same a few weeks earlier when the government was hit by the Fox saga.

It’s why all governments need a central mission to keep them anchored and ensure they don’t get blown of course. We know this government claims commitment to “abolishing the deficit”. The scale of the cuts and NHS changes they are forcing through, for example, betray their rightwing instincts. Yet at other times this government’s programme is totally incoherent, with the central players seemingly caught between what they believe and what they think they should say or do.

There has always been this incoherence in David Cameron’s leadership. His failures in the past exacerbate his problems now. He failed in opposition to resolve the inherent tension between a centrist, modernising position and more traditional Tory instincts. So these tensions, far from being resolved by being in government, have in fact been magnified. It explains why his whips are forced to deal with an increasingly fractious Parliamentary party in the Commons over issues like Europe. Meanwhile, the alleged public venting of frustration by one Tory MP at a weekend drinks party is another manifestation.

Of course, there is nothing unusual with governments having problems with their troops in the Commons; it happens to all governments. What is striking is that it’s happening to this government so quickly. And the government’s problems extend beyond just management of their MPs. The government sees its legislation bogged down in the Lords; we’ve seen a high profile Tory cabinet ministerial resignation while the probing of the home secretary has seen her bad-tempered under pressure.

Back in 2003, David Cameron as a fresh faced bright up and coming young Tory MP wrote of the Blair government “It usually takes at least 10 years for a government to get hopelessly out of touch, arrogant, secretive, defensive, ragged and tetchy. This one has done it in less than seven.” Fancy having achieved all that in just 18 months.

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

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4 Responses to “Whip’s notebook”

  1. Nick says:

    Fancy getting into office and finding out that Labour have run up debts of 7 trillion and employed Bernie Maddoff’s accountant to hide the numbers.

    Why should the public listen to fraudsters?

  2. Ravi says:

    Obviously as a Labour Party member I am biased but I have been surprised at how quickly they have shown themselves to be really quite useless. Only this weekend, in Francis Maude, we had a Tory Cabinet member encouraging public sector trade union members to take strike action and get paid for it!

    Yes, yes I know he suggested that the action should be for 15 minutes – but come on, how odd is it for a Tory Cabinet member to be encouraging strike action.

    This lot don’t know which way is up, let alone how to run a country.

  3. “It’s why all governments need a central mission to keep them anchored and ensure they don’t get blown of course” – Yes. But this government doesn’t have a worthwhile central mission because, as I’ve previously written, the central mission of its leader is simply to stay PM for as long as possible. This is the core explanation of the governmental incoherence that you rightly refer to and also why this is a government so easily buffeted by events. They are a ship on a stormy sea with no sense of the port to which they are aiming. The mirage of a port that was deficit elimination is increasingly being revealed to be the illusion that it always was; leaving them even more sea swept.

  4. Amber Star says:

    @ Nick

    Your attacks on the previous Labour government are becoming more strident in response to the increasingly obvious incompetence of the current Coalition. It’s LOL funny; please don’t stop.

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