Andrew Mitchell’s appointment as chief whip sends out several messages to Conservative MPs. First, the decision to move a high-performing secretary of state to the whips office and the news that several of the best and the brightest of the new intake will be joining him there is meant to show MPs that Cameron is showing the whips office, the conduit for their concerns, respect.
But with this comes a toughening up of discipline. The Prime Minister is bringing in a former army officer and veteran of the Maastricht whips office. One imagines that Conservative MPs will be rather more nervous about an interview without coffee with the chief whip now that Mitchell is in post. As Mitchell once said about being a whip, ‘if you’re job is to secure the passage of the slaughter of the first born bill your job is to think up good reasons why there are too many first born.’
But Cameron is also saying to Tory MPs that he’s moving their way. The previous chief Patrick McLoughlin was from the left of the party — he used to call the Thatcherite ‘no turning back group’ the ‘don’t turn your back group’ — Mitchell is from the right. It’s expected that Mitchell will be a more vigorous advocate of the right’s concerns in Number 10.
One irony of this appointment is that Cameron beat Mitchell in a selection battle in Witney ahead of the 2001 election. One of the crucial things that swung it Cameron’s way: a vigorous campaign by Tory Eurosceptics highlighting Mitchell’s role as a Maastricht whip.