The government has yet to compose the motion that MPs will debate and vote on in tomorrow’s Commons debate on Syria. And while some MPs are making clear that they are very nervous about the prospect of intervention, many others are yet to make up their minds. This means that as they return to Parliament today and tomorrow ahead of the debate (which starts at 2.30pm), they are sitting targets for the whips.
There are some MPs like John Baron who are clear that they do not support intervention. Then there are a number of independently-minded MPs like Douglas Carswell and Sarah Wollaston who aren’t worth much of a whip’s time: it won’t make any difference to how they cast their vote. Others will be more susceptible to persuasion, and how the whips deal with this group of waverers would be a test of any whip’s office. Remember that Cameron has been considering leaving his team of whips as it is, save promoting rising stars like Nicky Morgan, in his forthcoming reshuffle. There is a theory in Downing Street that the party could become self-whipping as the 2015 election approaches, and to a certain extent this has been borne out by MPs’ behaviour over the past few months: even the most recalcitrant backbenchers have taken more interest in making life difficult for Labour instead of causing problems for their leader.
But the question now facing the whips is how hard are they going to have to twist arms? Intervention in Syria may be a sensitive issue, but it is not a free vote on an issue of conscience. How worried the whips are will, of course, depend partly on whether Labour decides to support the vote. But given that support may not come until the last minute, it’s reasonable to expect that the whips will be getting to work today. And the methods they use to persuade undecided MPs will have a significant and lasting effect on morale in the party, which is currently riding on a wave of summer good news. But as we all know, the tide can quickly turn in the Tory party.