Kevin Pietersen might be lurking in India while England start their test series in the country, but as of today, the batsman and part-time off-spinner knows the only starring role he’ll be playing will be in a commentary box. He was left out of the squad by head coach Andy Flower and the England and Wales Cricket Board after sending friends on the South African team allegedly derogatory text messages about his then captain, Andrew Strauss.
The South African team have refused to disclose what those messages said, but their spirit is not dissimilar to some of the insults that members of David Cameron’s squad have been broadcasting over the airwaves recently. It kicked off with Nadine Dorries describing the Chancellor and the Prime Minister as ‘two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk’, and was followed more recently with Tim Yeo telling the Prime Minister to show whether he was a ‘man or a mouse’, and then Brian Binley blogging that Cameron was a ‘chambermaid’ to the Lib Dems.
These MPs who decide to insult Cameron publicly are not just speaking for themselves: for every backbencher who goes public with a new creative insult for the PM, there’s two or three more who will immediately message journalists pointing out that they privately agree with the sentiment, not to mention the Lib Dems who hoot with glee at yet another wonderful image for conference speeches. The MPs concerned feel greater loyalty to their party than their leader. But as much as hacks appreciate the opportunity to commission illustrators with new and ever-more-alarming images of David Cameron as a rodent or domestic servant, it’s unwise for the leadership to let it continue.
KP’s ongoing absence from the squad was a consequence of his betrayal of his leader. In a normal commercial organisation, an employee who called their boss a ‘chambermaid’, or accused them of being ‘arrogant’ and out of touch would find themselves in a meeting with the HR department pretty sharpish. But what has been strange in each instance is that the MPs appear to get away with it. There is little comeback other than banter at PMQs, and so more backbenchers feel empowered to go public with their insults too.
Some loyal MPs argue that MPs like Binley and Dorries should have had the whip removed for their comments. Another suggested to me that Dorries should have been made a whip in 2010 to keep her on side and make use of her fiery spirit (I’m not sure that Dorries would be quite such a fan of this idea, somehow).
But there are new whips in place now, and the chief thrasher Andrew Mitchell will be setting up his strategy for bringing the party back into shape. He needs to end the culture of open dissent as part of his efforts to quell the rebellions in the party.
Part of the problem is that many backbenchers don’t feel all that loved by the leadership, and felt underappreciated by the whips, too. Loyal supporters and rebels alike moan that if only the whips took them out for coffee once in a while, told them that they were rooting for them when a newspaper published an unpleasant story about one of them, then many would not feel quite so inclined to rebel in the first place. MPs are not complicated beasts like KP: mostly they want to feel that their lobby drudgery is appreciated and to hear a reassuring voice on the phone when there’s a vote they feel uncomfortable about.
Even though it will make life less exciting for those on the outside, both Mitchell and Cameron could do a lot worse than to take a leaf out of Andy Flower’s book and make it clear that from now on, if MPs want to criticise the way their party is being led, they should do so behind closed doors, not into a microphone.