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Downing Street's Corporal Jones moment?

By Paul Goodman
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I asked yesterday whether David Cameron or the Whips bore the main responsibility for this week's party management disaster over Syria.  A day later, the answer is evident.  Downing Street presumed, not unreasonably, that Ed Miliband would deliver a Labour abstention on the vote.  The Whips - also not unreasonably - took their cue from Number 10, made the same presumption, and told some Conservative MPs that they didn't need to return.  One was no less senior a person than the Chairman of the 1922 Committee.  In essence, the Prime Minister was prepared to hold a vote on missile strikes despite opposition to the move from a third or more of Tory MPs.  This is party mismanagement on an epic scale.

I therefore hope that today's Daily Telegraph report claiming planned sackings of Ministers and payroll members who didn't vote - plus, perhaps, that of Sir George Young - is wrong.  Very simply, Cameron dug himself into a hole over Syria, and will dig himself in deeper if he blames others.  He has enough diehard internal opponents as it is, and can't afford to add to their number in a Parliament in which he has no majority.  So what should he do, then?  At the risk of repeating myself, roughly as follows.  First, use his most senior Conservative colleagues as an Inner Cabinet.  (I gather than Iain Duncan Smith offered good advice in Cabinet this week over Syria, urging caution.)

Second, bolster the status of the Whips and listen to them more.  Third, carry out the below-Cabinet-rank shuffle of Ministers that he was planning to do anyway.  Fourth, plan for changes in the Whips Office and the Foreign Office - which doesn't reflect Tory MPs views on Europe and intervention - between now and the next election, probably next summer.  These might include appointing David Lidington or Mark Harper Chief Whip, bringing in Eric Pickles as Leader of the House, and making Mark Francois Minister for Europe.  Oh, and finally: Number 10 should keep calm, and try to change the subject.  It must avoid a Corporal Jones moment - that's to say, first crying "Don't panic" and then doing precisely the opposite.


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