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Cameron must be wary of being seen to divide and rule

by Paul Goodman

When I was in the Commons, the party leader would sometimes ask all members of the Parliamentary Party to a meeting chaired by the Chief Whip.  These invitations were mildly controversial.  This is because the traditional practice is that the 1922 Committee asks the leader to address backbenchers only.  A twofold assumption is implicit in that way of doing business.  First, it dramatises the distinction between his front bench and Conservative backbenchers, who aren't subject to its disciplines.  Second - and consequently - it's a reminder that he and his team are accountable to the '22, not the other way round.

As I say, collective displeasure with the newer practice was faint.  This was because while some backbenchers deemed the new practice improper, others rather welcomed the meetings.  The leadership often used them to update the Parliamentary Party on its strategy and thinking, and I found them more useful than not.  And since the custom was that the leader only addressed the '22 occasionally, they helped to keep him in touch with Tory MPs and him with them.  None the less, unease persisted: why, after all, couldn't the leader simply ask the Chairman of the '22 to call a meeting whenever necessary?

Sophy Ridge reported last week that another such meeting is to happen tomorrow in relation to the health bill, but with a twist: members of the 2010 intake are invited only.  Although this won't be the first time that the invitation has been restricted in such a way - I'm told that a few such meetings happened last year - it's hard to see a reason for this elaboration.  If David Cameron wants, say, to update the Parliamentary Party on Government strategy, he should ask the Chief Whip to arrange a meeting.  But if he wants to discuss the health bill with backbenchers, he should ask the '22's Chairman to call a meeting of the whole committee.

It's true that some of the most determined supporters of Andrew Lansley's original proposals are members of the 2010 intake - such as Nick De Bois, who's made the case for them on this site.  But MPs from former intakes will also have a view one way or the other.  It is tactless at least and dangerous at most not to offer them the same invitation.  Tactless, because some are bound to read it as signalling that the views of the older intakes are less important to Downing Street than those of the new one.  And dangerous, because it will invite accusations that the leadership is trying to divide and rule.

I don't believe that this is Number 10's intention.  However, its reputation in these matters is less unblemished than it should be.  Some senior members of the '22 see the Prime Minister's meetings with the 40 as part of such a manoevre.  Again, I don't think that this is correct.  But it's scarcely a more than a year since Cameron attempt to abolish the '22 altogether by merging it with his front bench.  And the move is as baffling as it is mistaken.  It's not as though all backbenchers would give him a rougher ride over the health bill than only some of them: the leader isn't usually mauled at such meetings, and wouldn't be over the bill.

All in all, there's more to this than fuddy-duddy procedure about who issues invitations to whom.  To divide and rule always carries risks.  So does being seen to do so - even when one isn't.

10pm Update The Government Whips Office have been in touch.  They say that tomorrow's meeting is the continuation of a series of meetings that the Chief Whip has been holding with the new intake - focused on their special concerns and interests.  They add that the idea that the Prime Minister would join one of these meetings has been in the pipeline for some time and say that tomorrow's meeting is not specifically about health, although the NHS reforms may be discussed.


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