One of the most important talents in politics is the ability to count. The Scottish Labour Party had a legendary organiser, Jimmy Allison, who could walk into any party meeting and tell you exactly how the votes were going to fall on any issue. One sign of political decay is when a party’s leadership can’t do the numbers. For all the uncertainty about whether or not Wednesday’s vote on fracking was a confidence vote or not, in the end the government won the vote easily — by 96 votes, despite 36 Tory backbench rebels.
Which means the jumpiness from No. 10 wasn’t necessary; if the numbers had been done properly, so much panic and disarray could have been avoided. No chaos over whether it was a confidence vote. No shouting and manhandling of MPs being hustled and hassled through the lobby. No resignation and “unresignation” of the Chief Whip and the Deputy Chief Whip. And no panicked press office clarification messaged at WhatsApp at 1:30am.
It was this whirling vortex of panic that finally sank Liz Truss. And it was avoidable. As in so many crises it was a lack of accurate information that fed the ill-judged and ultimately disastrous decisions. The final 48 hours of Liz Truss’s leadership of the Conservative party are a lesson for everyone in politics.
The wiring of politics was exposed. The whips are meant to be anonymous. Going about quietly, as one great Labour whip described it to me when I was Tony Blair’s Political Secretary: “Just doing the Lord’s work, John, just doing the Lord’s work!” So, when Craig Whittaker, the Deputy Chief whip was quoted as resigning shouting: “I am fucking furious and I don’t give a fuck anymore”, there was something transgressive about not just the language but the glimpse into the machinery.
There’s a lot of mystique about the Whip’s office — headed by the “Chief”, as the Chief Whip is familiarly known. There’s talk of little “black books” and dark secrets held over recalcitrant backbenchers. But as with the spycraft of recruiting informers and double agents, blackmail is a very inefficient way of gaining control over people. To start with, they will always deeply resent you. Far better to align your disciplinary strictures with MPs’ needs and wants. For instance, one of the most powerful things whips do is allocate accommodation. The best offices are in short supply and in the past even offices were scarce — in the Eighties, a newly elected Ken Livingstone found himself working for months on a desk crammed into a corridor. There are carrots as well as sticks — one is foreign travel. Permission from the whips is needed for going on select committee fact-finding missions. Holding that over the colleagues is one of the forms of soft power used by the Chief.
But the authority the whips have to impose discipline derives ultimately from the power and the credibility of the Prime Minister they serve. Right until the very end of a PM’s tenure, the whips will deliver for them. But there’s a law of diminishing returns, as has been made clear this week.
The next Prime Minister will have to impose their authority through the machine they inherit. Whether it’s Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt, or even Boris Johnson redux, they face a fundamental challenge: rebellion can become addictive. As the fifth PM in just over six years, they will no doubt have a reshuffle. While patronage is initially a huge power for No. 10 — both the actual appointments and the promise of future preferment — it suffers from diminishing returns. Every new Cabinet and ministerial team creates losers as well as winners. When there have been a lot of reshuffles, it can easily come to the point where the number of former ministers is larger than the government’s majority. And the most frustrating thing about former ministers is that when they are on the backbenches, they suddenly discover the virtue of freedom of conscience. When I was Tony Blair’s Political Secretary we had only a small group of former ministers we called the “non-embittered former ministers” who we could rely on to support the government through thick and thin. The others were listening to Gordon Brown’s promises. As one of my colleagues quipped: “There will be six Chancellors in Gordon’s first Cabinet judging by what he’s promised.”
The new No. 10 operation will need to learn from the failures over the past 45 days, as well as the final 48 hours. Almost lost among so many stories this week was the suspension of Liz Truss’s Acting Head of Communications Jason Stein. Allegedly authorised by the then Prime Minister, Stein called Michael Gove a “sadist” and described Sajid Javid as “shit”. Good advisers accurately reflect their politicians, and do their bidding. Great advisers know they are paid to say no to their bosses, and to leave the personal politics to the politicians.
The new administration will have a short window in which to get it right. The police talk about the golden hour in investigations when vital evidence can be located or lost. Similarly, there’s a brief golden period when a new Prime Minister can have a reset. A broad-based Cabinet that unifies the party. A clear and straightforward discussion of the hard choices and trade-offs required for budget-repair, and no shrinking from accepting from the Conservative party’s responsibility for the economic and financial challenges. For this is no longer about winning a historic fifth term; it is about trying to keep the country in the best possible shape until the next election. When facing defeat, political parties often talk about “saving the furniture”. It’s time for the Conservative party to salvage some dignity.