Largely because of events, the febrile atmosphere in the Tory party has gone as damp as the weather after weeks of bickering. A combination of the Woolwich killing and recess have turned attention elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean things aren’t still bubbling away under the lid. As any MP will remind you, parliamentary recess isn’t holiday but more time in the constituency. And time in the constituency means time with your party members, who are particularly unhappy at the moment. So MPs aren’t necessarily going to return on Monday with relaxed, sunkissed faces: more furrowed brows after awkward chats with constituency chairs. Which is why the Tory leadership is busying itself with a measure it hopes will cheer backbenchers up when they return from recess.
Party co-chair Grant Shapps has written to constituency chairmen to ask for their support when MPs are drafted in to vote for James Wharton’s Private Member’s Bill for an EU referendum. His letter is a clever one and you can read it in full here. One of the key passages is below:
‘Like all of our MPs, I have a busy constituency diary and I place great importance on meeting constituents every Friday.
‘But this week, I will be asking my Association Chairman, as I am asking you today, to understand the absence of their Member of Parliament on the 5th July while they attend this historic vote in the Commons. We will of course try to keep further Friday disruptions to a minimum, but I suggest that Chairmen are in touch with their Members of Parliament for further information and the passage of this Bill is likely to require further sitting Fridays.
‘I also wanted to let you know that soon we will be launching a campaign to communicate our message to the country, and put pressure on both Labour and the Lib Dems to make this referendum a reality.’
This is clever because it is an attempt to make constituency chairmen feel loved after the row over ‘swivel-eyed loons’, which was as much an opportunity for disgruntled members to say what they’ve been thinking about the party leadership for a while as it was about the alleged comments themselves. Shapps doesn’t just frame this letter as one seeking permission for taking an MP out of their constituency for an unusual Friday vote, but he also appears to confide in the chairmen about his future plans to goad Labour and the Lib Dems on the referendum policy.
Shapps needs to succeed in controlling the narrative on this bill. Up till now, it has been about quarrelling factions of backbenchers when the party should be focusing on making life as awkward for Labour as possible. This will take more than just one letter from the party’s Tiggerish chairman, but it’s a good start, particularly while he has a chance to make his voice heard without the clamour of backbenchers arguing in the Commons.