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Why Liz Truss lost control Whipping the backbenches is a dark art

Everyone needs a chief enforcer. (Malcolm Tucker; The Thick of It)

Everyone needs a chief enforcer. (Malcolm Tucker; The Thick of It)


October 21, 2022   4 mins

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.

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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.


John McTernan is a British political strategist and former advisor to Tony Blair.

johnmcternan

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Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
1 year ago

‘Whipping’ and the Whips Office should be consigned to history … the power of the political parties should be diminished and the power of the electorate increased

MP’s should be free to represent their constituents directly and not through the conduit of the Whips Office

Stephen Walsh
SW
Stephen Walsh
1 year ago

The public generally vote for a party, based on its policy platform as set out in its manifesto. They cannot choose the candidate their preferred party puts forward in their constituency, and do not generally vote for them personally. Whenever an MP breaks from their party they are – almost without exception – dumped by the voters in favour of a new candidate from the party their constituents actually support at the next opportunity. Recent high profile examples include Dominic Grieve, David Gauke, Chuka Umunna, Simon Danczuk, Anna Soubry and many others.
650 revolting MPs with no personal mandate, voting as they please to attract media attention and social media likes, is no way to run a country.

Last edited 1 year ago by Stephen Walsh
Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
1 year ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

That is because the MP has no independence .. he is controlled by his party thro the whips … the electorate know political parties are all powerful … we need to change that

Stephen Walsh
SW
Stephen Walsh
1 year ago

Wherever people have a choice, they almost always choose the party with a platform to form a government, or least to be an effective opposition, over the individual with neither of those capabilities. And they are right to do so. If MPs don’t like the policy, they should work within their parties to change them.

Last edited 1 year ago by Stephen Walsh
Dominic S
Dominic S
1 year ago

“We” being the voters. But the only possible way to change this is to vote for minor parties or independents. Unfortunately people continue to vote for the parties that have a financial grip over elections.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 year ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Quite right. We vote for the least worst party platform. If the local MP is intelligent and has integrity that is a bonus but for the most part we regard them as lobby fodder who will stick with the manifesto or the party line where circumstances change so that elements of the manifesto can no longer be adhered to sensibly.

When MPs start thinking they have a better handle on what should be done that is usually a receipt for chaos. Of course, a sensible leader will keep in touch with the opinions of their MPs and cabinet. Liz Truss and her Chancellor appeared not to have communicated well and listened to either her Cabinet, party or the public at large. She should have anticipated and prepared the party for the likely reaction of the market and ensured that savings were presented at the same time as expenditures.

William Foster
William Foster
1 year ago

The current parliamentary system should be consigned to history and replaced with direct democracy on blockchain via the app store. Use the existing Swiss model as a basis.

William Foster
WF
William Foster
1 year ago
Reply to  William Foster

Anyone care to explain why not?

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
1 year ago
Reply to  William Foster

The Swiss model works extremely well … it is difficult to argue against when you see the shambles of politics in the UK and right across Europe

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
1 year ago
Reply to  William Foster

Are you on twitter William?
@richardcalhoun

William Foster
William Foster
1 year ago

Not on twitter, Richard. My guess is people are reading blockchain and conflating with ideas of cryptocurrency/cashless society, without understanding that the former does not mean or require the latter. An (open source) immutable, anonymised, decentralised ledger of record that proves legitimacy (or otherwise) is one of the most potentially beneficial uses of the technology.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

It’s probably not realistic to expect parliamentary discipline to return now, regardless of who they pick as leader.
It’s the end of their run and they’ll scrabble around seeking media attention by rebelling for the next two years of this government in order to build their post-MP careers as tv and media political commentators. Most of them will disappear into anonymity.

So a Labour government in 2024. Can’t wait. Think I’ll unsubscribe from everything, ignore the news and just play with the grandkids.

Nell Clover
NC
Nell Clover
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

I think you’re right, but my conspiratorial sprite says the crowning of Rishi will instill an almost Thatcherite belief in TINA and as Risihi walks us back into the EU, uses the UK public’s credit card to save finance from the impending financial crash, and accelerates global inequality reduction by turning the UK into a South Africa, the back benches will calm, the BBC will chain its dogs and in 2024 there’ll be an unmemorable transfer of power from cardboard Rishi to wooden Starmer.

Last edited 1 year ago by Nell Clover
Dominic S
Dominic S
1 year ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Unfortunately, you may well be right.

Rhys Jaggar
RJ
Rhys Jaggar
1 year ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

So back to rule by the USA via Ursula van der Leyen then. That woman should be charged with culpable homicide next spring if Germans die of cold this winter. She is a psychopath, totally unfit to be in any position of responsibility and utterly without any accountability to any voters.

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
1 year ago

To retain a shred of dignity the Tory MPs should be locked in a room until 326 agree to support a particular candidate and then swear to keep the process secret. It helps Popes retain dignity.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jon Hawksley
Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

A Conclave! Excellent Idea.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

But in the Conservatives case at this time, once a decision is reached, they should send up a white flag, instead of sending up white smoke.

Last edited 1 year ago by Prashant Kotak
Dominic S
Dominic S
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

Secrecy? Over who voted for whom in a papal conclave? Dream on. Simply doesn’t happen. We know who was responsible for voting for, and fighting for the current holder of the post of anti-Christ.

Anthony Reader-Moore
Anthony Reader-Moore
1 year ago
Reply to  Dominic S

It is wickedly untrue, not to say disrespectful, to refer to the Successor of St Peter as the anti-Christ.

Nikki Hayes
Nikki Hayes
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

As it happens, Michael Gove suggested exactly this.

Jeanie K
Jeanie K
1 year ago
Reply to  Nikki Hayes

That puts it into the “bad ideas file”

Jeanie K
JK
Jeanie K
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

Tory MPs should be locked in a room…”
That’s the only part you needed to write.

FacRecte NilTime
FacRecte NilTime
1 year ago

In a parliamentary democracy, there can be no stable or effective government without party discipline. That is the simple but necessary function of the Whips.

We like sausages, but prefer not to see how they are made. No sausages for dinner when the sausage-making machine has more fat and gristle than meat and gums up.

David McKee
David McKee
1 year ago

Excellent piece, written by someone who knows exactly what he’s talking about. It reminds me of the time I saw James Graham’s play “This House,” which left me with an unbounded admiration for the whips, who operate the engine room of politics.
“Doing the Lord’s work.” I like that!

Nicholas Rynn
NR
Nicholas Rynn
1 year ago

Truss’ principal failing is she is not a leader, few beyond those who sought personal advancement under her premiership trusted her, she is incapable of making a logical appreciation leading to a sensible and workable plan and lacks the personality to inspire. All that aside she doesn’t listen to advice.

James Anthony Seyforth
James Anthony Seyforth
1 year ago

Lol everytime I read an unherd article I just skip to the comments for the summary of an article that is generally a waste of time to read. I think there is some art in writing very briefly what you are trying to say, especially in journalism. It’s not exactly philosophical treatise is it.

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago

“When I was Tony Blair’s Political Secretary”
Which is why we should ignore you now.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

A classic case of “self praise is NO recommendation “.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

So his insights into whipping based on experience are valueless? That’s a wise course to take – tin ears – worked a treat for Truss.

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

don’t take advice from the enemy – He means to do you harm.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

Friends close, enemies closer. Always effective if you want to understand your foe.

Harriet Yeo
Harriet Yeo
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Well said. Tony Blair never lost an election.

Jeanie K
JK
Jeanie K
1 year ago
Reply to  Harriet Yeo

He never won one either. At the time, the tories were unelectable, under Major, then Haigue etc. So, the tories lost them blair didn’t win them.
That’s what our system is, people vote against things, not for the other things.

A B
A B
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

He did make some interesting points, though. You can’t always throw the baby out with the bathwater.