Party discipline is one of the key themes of David Cameron’s reshuffle today. It is essential to bring Tory MPs, who have started to run riot of late, back into check, which is why Andrew Mitchell is now the chief whip. But I’ve spoken to MPs today who have argued that there is a far wider problem than the lack of an aggressive whipping operation.
The strongest criticism comes from Angie Bray, who was sacked as a PPS when she voted against the government at the second reading of the House of Lords Reform Bill. She is miffed that while she had to lose her job to vote against something that was not specified in the coalition agreement, Liberal Democrat ministers plan to vote against the government on the boundary reforms and then return to their jobs the following day (she’s not the only one: her fellow rebel PPS on the Lords reforms Conor Burns said something similar to me last month).
Instead, Bray thinks David Cameron has got one ‘last chance’ to set firmer boundaries with the Liberal Democrats:
‘I think it’s extraordinary that Nick Clegg should be keen to throw away a convention for ministers that has held for years just for this one thing. There is too much Lib Dem creep here. I think we should have started as we mean to go on and said to them, look, this is not a 50/50 balance, we make up x per cent of this coalition and that will be the basis on which we are going to do business. Maybe now is the last chance at it because of the reshuffle.’
Another Tory backbench rebel said to me when Mitchell was appointed that ‘they can change personnel but the problem is at the top’. And one MP who recently revolted on the Lords reforms suggests that it’s not so much that the whips need to be more aggressive in maintaining party discipline: they should actually take some time make backbench ‘drudges’ feel loved, as should ministers. They say ministers should invite those MPs who have supported the government on issues they feel uncomfortable about for coffee or a meal to make them ‘feel loved’. Otherwise, the rebel warns, those MPs currently treated as ‘fodder’ may be tempted by the warm welcome and respect offered to them by a large number of members of their party if they decide to revolt.
Over the past few months I’ve seen rebel MPs being embraced and slapped on the back by colleagues when they walk through Portcullis House in the days after a vote: that sort of attention can seem far more attractive to an MP who knows they are not going to be promoted than continuing as lobby fodder.