Jesse Norman became the hero of the hour yesterday afternoon when the government admitted defeat against the Tory rebels and dropped the programme motion on Lords reform. Norman was keen to claim the victory for his rebel operation, making an early intervention to say:
‘Let me make it clear from the Conservative benches that the very substantial opposition from within the Conservative party, not just that from Labour, was responsible for the withdrawal of the motion. That should be perfectly clear and reflected in the record.’
As leader of the rebel camp, and a member of the 91 who voted against the second reading of the Bill late last night, Norman was the toast of his colleagues after the programme motion failed. He was even being talked about as a potential future leader of the Conservative party. And then David Cameron turned up.
According to Labour MP Karl Turner, the Prime Minister made a ‘bee line’ for Norman as he was chatting with another MP close to the doors of the chamber. Cameron was ‘finger-pointing and prodding towards Mr Norman’, Turner tweeted. Nicholas Watt filed a story shortly afterwards that quoted one leading rebel describing the Prime Minister as ‘Flashman’, a tag Cameron will not be overjoyed to see return.
There is a possibility that doing this in full sight of other MPs returning from voting was an attempt by Cameron to show the Liberal Democrats that he is taking personal charge of ensuring that MPs will now fall into line and the government can get the consensus that Michael Gove claimed was still possible over the Lords reform legislation. But if, as all the reports suggest, this sounds like the Flashman who appears when the Prime Minister is truly rattled at PMQs, not a piece of acting.
Sources are briefing this morning that the PM was less annoyed by the rebellion than he was by messages sent by Norman to colleagues which were ‘misrepresenting the PM’s view on the House of Lords’. But giving an MP who was the golden boy among backbenchers a public dressing down simply threatens to damage Cameron’s authority still further by stacking the feeling in the party against him.
But the whips and Cameron should have been kicking themselves last night after such an inconsistent whipping operation. They started off by suggesting that it would not damage an MP’s career to step out of line on this issue, which sowed the seeds of rebellion. The whips only got tough when that rebellion had put out some pretty strong roots in the party. It was too late for Cameron to give Norman a public dressing down last night, and he will find he regrets it, perhaps even as early as PMQs today.