Lurk around the Palace of Westminster today and you might hear a strange creaking noise. It’s not the Commons air conditioning, which has broken and is making appropriately eerie noises ahead of an urgent question on the Bilderberg meeting. No, that creaking sound is the Tory Whips’ Office finally limbering up to do something about wayward MPs.
Sir George Young summoned backbencher Andrew Bridgen for an urgent meeting today after his letter of no confidence was leaked to the Mail on Sunday and he wrote an op-ed for the same paper saying ‘there is a credibility problem with the current leader’ and that the current situation was ‘like being in an aeroplane’ which ‘the pilot doesn’t know how to land’.
There were suspicions reported in today’s Times that it was in fact the Whips who leaked the letter, given Bridgen had told them he had sent it. Conspiracy theories are all the rage this week, and there is some sense behind this theory given Number 10 was briefing last week that Bridgen’s other letter (he’s a busy man at the moment) demanding a Commons vote on arming the Syrian rebels came from malcontents as well as those genuinely concerned about the conflict. But Bridgen was also telling colleagues that he had sent the letter, and parliamentary colleagues aren’t always discreet colleagues.
Either way, the MP’s decision to make such stinging personal criticism of the Prime Minister couldn’t just pass. I’ve argued before that the Whips need to get tough on MPs who go beyond debate about party messaging and start attacking their leaders directly. It’s the other side of paying backbenchers attention more generally. And they can’t just punish MPs out of favour with the leadership, like Nadine Dorries. If you step out of line, you should get a ticking off, otherwise you’ll just do it again.
It’s worth noting that Bridgen is close to Adam Afriyie, whose campaign team have been encouraging MPs to hold back from sending their letters to Graham Brady thus far. Even if the whips are successful in stamping out open dissent from the backbenches, they should be wary of an influx of letters demanding a leadership contest from those who have been told to resist.