"There were two Conservative MPs who stood as independents at the general election - and they're not here now."
By Paul Goodman
Tory Chief Whip Patrick McLoughlin with David Cameron, Oliver Letwin and William Hague during the election campaign. [An image from the new ConservativeHome Quarterly magazine].
During the summer, there was a kerfuffle about the work of the Whips' Office, and I wrote a defence of what it is and what it does. I finished by suggesting that it should "break radically with custom and convention, and persuade the Chief Whip to grant, let's say, an interview in which he can make the case for the Whips to the world".
"He could give such an interview to - let's imagine - a journalist who's prepared to be critical, but has perhaps a little insight into how the Commons works; who wouldn't dream of tampering with the facts to suit his former colleagues, but has a certain sympathy for their work. A journalist such as, for example...but no, no: modesty forbids..."
A few weeks later, two men found themselves staring guardedly at each other in a Westminster restaurant. One was Patrick McLoughlin, the current Chief Whip. The other was me. "I read your piece," barked McLoughlin, looking up from his lunch with Nick Robinson, the BBC's Political Editor. "And I will grant you an interview." So it comes about that I'm ushered into his Commons Office almost six months later.
The sado-masochistic bulllwhip pinned to stretch across the length of a wall in his old, Opposition office has been tucked discreetly away behind a rack of newspapers. But many of the familiar props are still here in his new, smaller one, such as the photograph of McLoughlin in his miner's rig, dating from before the time of his first election to the Commons in what seems an age ago, 1986.
For those readers who don't know, he's in one respect an unusual Chief Whip. Many have been Francis Urquhart figures, in style if not in method: upper-to-upper-middle-class, dry, tough, clipped, understated. Fictional sayings merge with factual ones. "You might well think that, I couldn't possibly comment." "Your intervention was considered unhelpful." "He's been summoned for an interview without coffee."
He was a Minister under John Major and then, as I put it later in our conversation, "you left the Government". "I was sacked from the Government", he says unflinchingly. "I couldn't complain. I wasn't going up, so I went out. John Major said to afterwards: "You should really have been in the Whips Office, and not too long later, I went to the Whips Office, and have been here ever since."
An interview without coffee is code for a bollocking, possibly laden with threats (implicit or explicit). I, however, am given coffee, or rather tea. Earlier in the week, Peter Bone had moved a ten minute rule bill to abolish Commons whipping. The essence of his case was that Whips compromise the duty which MPs as legislators owe to their constituents to hold the Executive to account.
Whips, Bone said, are "flatterers, cajolers and sometime bullies". MPs, more often than not, are "treated by the Whips as little more than sheep. In fact the Whips even divide Members into groups which they call flocks. These flocks are then blindly herded into Division lobbies and told to vote a particular way on a subject that they know nothing about."
So I start with a patsy question. Is McLoughlin a flatterer, cajoler and sometime bully? "I hope I'm not a bully," he says, shifting in his seat slightly. "If the Whip's Office wasn't here, you'd have to invent something like it. It's not been here so long because people don't need it - it is needed. For example, we need to make sure we've got speakers in debates, people on committees, that those committees operate properly."
He doesn't need to persuade me. Governments must govern. In any system that merges the Executive and Legislature, governments must try to get their business. Governments will be made up by party, or something very like it, and either way there will be whipping and whips sooner or later. (Unless you want to separate the Legislature and Executive, as Bone does: this was the thrust of his argument.)
What strikes me, however, is that McLoughlin doesn't so much argue his counter-case as assume it. There's an presumption that "we" and the Executive - or the Shadow Executive, if the Party's in opposition - are one and the same, that their interests always coincide. Perhaps this is because he's been a Whip for so long that he's almost forgotten what it's like to be a sheep (or a hound).
Certainly, the more one's probed about something, the more one has to think the matter through. But Conservative Chief Whips grant interviews very rarely, and McLoughlin's case shifts around a lot. Moving ground, he says that "the Whips' Office is basically the human resources department of the Parliamentary Party, and we deploy our human resources as best we can."
But why does a human resources department need to tell MPs which lobby to go through? "Well, people ask us," says McLoughlin. "They quite often do…and the information's useful to know." He pauses for a moment, and then goes for it. "Peter has a rather romantic view perhaps of the chamber. But I've known times when Peter hasn't been in the chamber, yet has managed to vote on the issue before the house.
"There are lots of other things that Members of Parliament need to know. I think Peter is a member - I don't want to go on about Peter for too long - of Cornerstone. Initially, Cornerstone had their own Whip…some time ago…I don't think they do now." Were they discouraged from having one? "I don't know...I don't know enough about Cornerstone to know exactly how they operate."
"But someone presumably had to tell them where their meetings were going to be held - they presumably didn't all turn up spontaneously without being told by somebody that they were meant to be there." McLoughlin broods for a moment. "There were two Conservative MPs who stood as independents at the general election - and they're not here now." Were I a regular rebel, I might read those words as a threat.
For an interviewer, this way of speaking's compelling to follow. An old-style Chief Whip would have said: "It's inevitable that in a Parliamentary Party one has colleagues with a wide variety of views, some of whom have yet fully to be exposed to the collective wisdom of their colleagues," and so on, but McLoughlin's an unantipatable mix of Urquhart-style cloudiness and sudden shafts of lightning.
This comes out again when our exchanges move from generalities about whipping to particulars. This is a novel Commons. Almost half the Parliamentary Party is new, leaving a balance unknown in modern times. It's arrived at a time of the biggest public spending scaleback for many years. This coincides with a planned reduction in the size of the House. The last Parliament was ravaged by the expenses scandal.
In short, MPs will be tugged two ways - towards the Government lobbies by the Whips, and away from them bu their constituents (or at least by the lobby and interest groups). Isn't the arcane culture of the Whips Office a bit out of date? Does it really understand, for example, the outlook of new women MPs with children, some of whom are apparently unhappy with the long-winded manner of Chamber proceedings?
McLoughlin duly welcomes the "more diverse Parliamentary Party, which I think the party in the country is much better for", and says that the Government's troubles in the Commons have scarcely begun. "You've got to remember that this Parliament is very, very new. Although we've been here now for six months, two months of those have been a recess, and I don't think the real pressures have yet come on Members of Parliament." (He nearly always pronounces those words in full, not abbreviating them to "MPs".)
He's clearly thinking about the problems ahead in detail, and is conscious of the circumstances thrown up by the new intake. "Think about the long travelling distances. Take the Cornwall MPs, for example. It's five hours back to their constituencies at least. That gives extra problems and extra pressures on those members, and I think that we in the Whips Office have got to be conscious of that."
"You know, of the three Cornwall MPs, two of them are women. They're great women and they're doing a brilliant job. But as I say it takes them five hours to get back to their constituencies. Now Angie Bray can get back to her constituency in 30 minutes. So she can pop out in the afternoon and go back to a constituency function. You can't do that if you're representing a part of Cornwall."
McLoughlin, of course, is calculating how to maintain the Government's majority when things turn rough. However, I think there's more to it than that. I wrote earlier that he's been a Whip for so long that he may have forgotten what it's like to be a backbencher. In the sense of questioning the Executive, I think that's true. But in the sense of understanding his colleagues' hopes, fears, anxieties, problems, weaknesses - not so.
And empathising, usually, as well as understanding. A Parliamentary Party's in some ways a regiment. MPs are members of it together, fight battles, get scars, are wounded. A few take to the bottle. Others crack up. Such work creates a rough, often mute, understated sympathy. "A lot of people remember the softer side of David Lightbown," McLoughlin says at one point of a burly former Whip, and he means it.
The Whips are no longer ensconsed in Number 12 Downing Street, but have moved to number nine. They meet each morning for half an hour. For the first fifteen minutes or so, the Conservatives are "by ourselves", but the Liberal Democrat Whips "join us halfway through our meeting where we go through the day's business - what's happening in committes, that kind of thing".
McLoughlin claims that there's less patronage - since Select Committee Chairmen now being elected - and adds (rather unconvincingly) "But thank God for that. Because when you used to have this patronage and appoint various people you upset other people, and you picked up more enemies than friends. I haven't found it a problem." Is there really a Whips' Black Book? "No." (A pause.) "It's Blue."
We come back, in the end, to recent business. Peter Bone's bill followed a rebellion by 37 MPs over the EU budget contribution. I've been told that the Whips didn't see their problem coming. Is that so? "We were aware that there was growing anxiety about it. I think it was an interesting day, the 13th of October 2010."
"Margaret Thatcher had her 85th birthday, the world was cheering the miners as they were winched out of the bowels of the earth in Chile, the Government accepted an amendment on a European motion by Bill Cash, and we had this slight problem with Mr Carswell's amendment." (Note that Cash is now called by his Christian name, and that Carswell is Mr Carswell.)
How many other Tory MPs would have had the Chilean miners in mind at the same time as Lady Thatcher's birthday? I end by asking him what he thought of "Whipping it Up," Gyles Brandreth's play about a Conservative Government with a narrow majority. He quite liked it, but a detail seems to have stuck in his mind.
"There was one part that was a bit too close to the bone. The plot was all about a tax on gypsies and boy scouts. My fear is we're not going to beaten on a big thing, but it will be something stupid that you don't see, that you don't anticipate, because you're always looking in your rear mirror to find something more obvious that's coming up."
> On the Parliament blog yesterday, Jonathan Isaby named the most and least rebellious Tory MPs