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Sun, 19 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Doom And Disgruntled Tories Are Costing Whips Control Of MPs

Rishi Sunak meeting with members of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs after becoming Prime Minister in 2022 (Alamy)

6 min read

A sense of impending doom and loyalties fractured by a revolving door of prime ministers has left the Conservative party difficult for the party whips to govern, according to MPs who are growing increasingly frustrated with their unruly colleagues.

While recent rebellions from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s most vocal detractors gave way to a mercifully sedate recess period over Easter, the MPs tasked with keeping their party in line will once again be put to the test after voters go to the polls on 2 May for local elections. Expected to be bruising for the Tories, these elections taking place in councils and mayoralties across England are viewed as the next likely combustion point for Downing Street, with the potential loss of Conservative mayors Andy Street and Ben Houchen representing particularly high risks for Sunak. 

The whips’ office’s efficacy is now facing questions, with many Tory MPs wondering whether those without the heft of experience in its more junior ranks are simply out of their depth when confronted by such a volatile and disenfranchised party. 

“The churn does not help and they are inexperienced,” a junior minister remarked. 

The Chief Whip, a position currently held by MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire Simon Hart, along with sixteen other MPs working in the whips’ office, is ostensibly responsible for ensuring MPs vote with Government to pass legislation in the House of Commons. Each whip has around 20-25 MPs on their watch, and also acts as Downing Street’s eyes and ears on the parliamentary Conservative party. They are assigned their own silver champagne goblet in the department, the size of the cup determined by the seniority. The least senior member of the Whips office has to pour the champagne for their colleagues. 

One key problem for the whips is that the constant change of personnel at the top of Government since the last general election in 2019, has deepened factional divides in the party. 

While Sunak has ensured only his allies sit around the Cabinet table, MPs on the right of the party, and many of those who were elected in 2019, are still wounded from the removal of Boris Johnson in 2022, for which many blame Sunak. Allies of Sunak’s immediate successor Liz Truss are still disappointed that her chaotic time in Downing Street was cut short after 49 days, and continue to lobby Government to revive some of her ambitious economic policies. 

A minister told PoliticsHome this had resulted in proxy wars within the Conservative Party and snipes from MPs “who don’t like Rishi”, making it harder to rely on strong allegiances between the front and backbenches. 

This landscape led to a bruising defeat for Sunak last year when the government lost a vote on the Victims and Prisoners Bill. An amendment on whether to establish a compensatory body for victims was passed by the Commons by a majority four with the help of 30 Conservative rebel MPs. One critical Tory MP told PoliticsHome that inexperienced whips made the mistake of asking only the Prime Minister’s staunchest allies to cajole disgruntled Truss supporters into backing the government. A former cabinet minister said more crushingly of the affair that the whips “cannot count”. 

A government source defended the work of the whips office, which they noted had pushed a substantial amount of legislation through the Commons since Sunak entered No.10.

"Members of the whips’ office have a combined experience in Parliament of over 110 years, and have delivered decisive majorities in over 350 votes since Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister," they said. These include the gargantuan levelling up bill and the complex online safety bill. Despite perceived flaws, the Rwanda bill is still expected to pass in the coming weeks. 

Prior to becoming Chief Whip, Simon Hart served in the cabinet office and as Secretary of State for Wales. Government whip Stuart Anderson has been praised as good with numbers and spreadsheets, and according to The Express was only one name out in estimating the size of an earlier rebellion over the Rwanda bill last December.

Simon Hart
Simon Hart (pictured), the Chief Whip, was part of the 2010 intake and is one of the more experienced ministers in the department

A senior Conservative MP insisted that inexperience in Government was not unique to the whips office, nor were inexperienced whips an issue facing only their party. “When we were in the voting lobby [for the SNP’s opposition day debate on Gaza], we had to advise SNP whips as they did not know what they were doing in the lobby,” they added. 

But as the UK creaks towards a general election later this year, which Labour is now expected to win by a landslide, the most difficult MPs to control could be those who don’t expect to be returned to the Commons, and have very little to lose from coming up against Downing Street. A record number of MPs including former heavyweights Theresa May, Dominic Raab, Kwasi Kwarteng, Sajid Javid, Nadhim Zahawi do not even plan to stand. 

The minister said whips were struggling to do a “thorough job” of nailing senior MPs who  had become “semi-detached” and lost interest in even attending Parliament. Recent analysis by the Financial Times found that the working day in Parliament was on average shorter than it had been for 25 years.

“If you’re leaving Parliament, you sort of think ‘well it doesn’t really matter, does it?’ And that I think is permeating some people’s mindsets,” they added. 

A former whip said the party's poor performance in the opinion polls was also contributing to a sense that many MPs had “given up”, meaning the usual tactics to boost morale such as drinks parties and new policy were not “going to fix the situation” this time. 

“When I was in the whips office, there would be instances of MPs and even ministers who were on the train home at 5pm or 6pm, but that was an anomaly then,” they explained. “Now people are disinterested and have given up. The Whips Office has been arsey to colleagues who need a slip to go on work visits.”

Could a shake-up of Government at the end of this year – regardless of which party ends up in power – bring MPs back into line when old factions and rivalries are naturally dispersed?

A senior minister was doubtful, arguing that MPs can rarely resist the “political sidebar of shame”, referring to Mailonline’s infamous gossip section. 

“This situation will not change if Labour gets into power as people are addicted to the drama,” they said.

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