Apart from the space between Boris Johnson and a television crew, the unsafest place to be Westminster is the government’s whips Office in a crisis. Which is most of the time.
It is the job of the whips to bring the government’s business home. Nothing more and nothing less. They are not relationship counsellors, nor for that matter are they Stone Age thugs clubbing the weak into submission. By and large they are a decent bunch trying to do a very difficult job. Most MPs are fairly compliant on the basis that as they won on a manifesto they are duty bound to vote for it. But the biggest hold that the whips have over their little charges is mystery and myth. For the Office to work effectively the chief has to be the Prime Minister’s Beria with a vast intelligence network covering every government department, every committee and every grouping. The best whips are like sponges. They soak up everything. If there is a group in a bar, tea room or dining room the good whip will sit down, chat, listen and report back. There is always a whip on duty in the chamber. He sits opposite the senior clerk. He is armed with a folder writing everything down. Every nuance, every barb, every lickspittling creepery. They also have a panic button if things go horribly wrong. It is on the side of the table.
So their most effective weapon is having a pretty good idea of the party mindset. This is often helped by gossip, particularly by informers who want to belittle their enemies and boost their career chances.
But back to mystery and myth. They have to convince their flock that they know every grubby little secret. Of course they can’t, but nobody can be quite sure. I remember a newly appointed whip excitedly telling us what happened in the office. He was gently pulled to one side and told to never lift the veil. It is a sort of priesthood. And for it to work it has to be. That is why there is a such a camaraderie in the office.
So much of the job is routine. But in minority government, the whips don’t always have the whip hand. And when you are dealing with zealots who are unbribable, unthreatenable and who will risk anything and everything the job becomes a nightmare. But at least they are relatively predictable. People like Heidi Allen on the left of the party and Andrea Jenkyns on the right are regarded as complete nutters. They seem to regard themselves as independents floating above the party system and have no respect for their leadership, caring not a jot for the consequences of what they do or say. They revel in the fact that they are often quoted in the press and are stupid enough to think it’s because what they have said is of great moment. Poor fools. They only get their name in print because journalists love to report division. On the back benches they are treated with courtesy but are friendless.
So what happened on the night of the broken pairs? Did Julian Smith behave like a dishonourable little shit? Was it an honest mistake? We will never know. But my instincts tell me that he panicked. The vote had to go through. The pressure was enormous. He was stress tested to almost destruction and he behaved like a bloody fool. That is not an excuse because what he did was inexcusable.
Smith is very lucky that this happened just before the recess. In July, even in the calmest of times, MPs go stir crazy. A long break might just calm the other parties down. Bit they won’t forgive or forget. The whole system works on trust. If that trust breaks down government business grinds to a halt. Ministers are in lock down and will find it difficult to fly off to Brussels or anywhere else.
Smith made a terrible error of judgement and will have to throw the opposition parties some slack. He is in the last chance saloon and it’s drinking up time.