It was inevitable that the new team of whips was going to be rather unsettled by tomorrow’s vote on the EU budget: it’s the first challenge the team has had to face. But what is surprising is quite how serious their palpitations are. I understand from a number of Conservative MPs that one of the key threats isn’t you-won’t-get-a-promotion-in-this-government, or we’ll-reveal-the-truth-about-your-mistress, but that a big rebellion tomorrow will threaten the very stability of the coalition government.
When I was first told this, I found it slightly incredible: this is a non-binding vote where the popular amendment calls for the Prime Minister to go further than he has promised in negotiations, rather than directly contradicting his stance. But MP after MP has confirmed to me that the whips are using this threat to quell the rebellion. I understand that one whip has even been suggesting that if Labour joins forces with the eurosceptics and supports the Reckless/Pritchard amendment calling for a real-terms cut, this will undermine confidence in David Cameron so completely that there will have to be a vote of confidence in his leadership by the end of this week.
Now, this is ridiculous. The amendment that MPs are signing up to – and the list now numbers around 40, those in the rebel camp tell me – is not actually that dangerous for the Prime Minister. For one thing, it is not binding on him. He could also use it to his advantage in negotiations at the budget summit in November, telling other European leaders that he has a vote from his own parliament calling for a cut and that therefore he must push for this sort of deal. The major downside is that it could position Labour as a party of fiscal discipline, which is amusingly implausible. But this is an unnecessary threat from the whips and makes them appear frozen with panic.
Other MPs are being invited to meetings – not just with Sir George Young – but also with the Prime Minister and George Osborne. There is a meeting for backbench MPs in Downing Street tonight, as well, but those who have not yet decided whether to rebel have been offered the personal ear of Cameron or the Chancellor. Normally a wavering MP would be escalated through the ranks, from a PPS to the Secretary of State responsible for the rebellion, through to a minister, and then up to Downing Street. But the new regime is to fast-track them straight to Cameron and Osborne. There are a number of problems with this. The first is that some MPs I’ve spoken to are so cheesed off with the party leadership and feel so long neglected by them that they don’t even want to attend a meeting. The second is that this makes this appear a full-on whipping operation over a vote which isn’t even binding.
Even though his spokespeople have so far refused to say that the Prime Minister’s personal desire would be for a real-terms cut, I would expect Cameron to suggest something to this effect himself before tomorrow’s vote. But the whips have now heated the rebellion amply for MPs to be whizzing around with excitement at the prospect of another revolt.