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Syria defeat: what happened to the whips?

29 August 2013

11:53 PM

29 August 2013

11:53 PM

There are a number of serious implications of tonight’s result. But it’s worth briefly considering the whipping operation in the hours leading up to this vote. Firstly, there was no rebel whipping operation (as in, no backbenchers leading others to revolt, totting up numbers and issuing rebuttals of government claims) as there has been on other votes such as the Lords and EU budget and referendum rebellions, which means MPs were only being pulled away from the government position by their own instincts. Or they were being left to wander away from the government position. From the conversations I’ve had with MPs, the government whipping operation continued to be pretty low-key until the middle of today, when the whips started to panic. MPs were starting to get hints that things were serious when those who were known to be seriously sceptical about intervention received calls from the whips asking them to support the government on this motion because they needed their votes. The Prime Minister then started holding meetings with would-be rebels, to try to convince them of his case. But even as the panic rose, no-one thought that there would be a defeat.

A number of rebels have remarked to me that it is strange the whips didn’t set to this earlier: they had known for a number of months that there was a list of 81 MPs who were nervous because those MPs signed Andrew Bridgen’s letter to the Prime Minister before the summer recess. But instead of working on those MPs, the whips left them alone. This result, if nothing else, puts paid to the notion that the Conservative leadership can rely on the party to be ‘self-whipping’ until the 2015 election. One MP remarked that he was surprised that more of his colleagues didn’t have such a visceral reaction to Ed Miliband’s antics that they supported the government out of sheer tribal loyalty on this vote.

And this has taken David Cameron back to the position he was with his party before the summer, when all his love-bombing appeared to have paid off. Why did so few obey the whips’ polite requests for support? Well, there’s principle, but that could have been expressed at the second vote, if it came. One rebel says:

‘It all comes down to loyalty. Who do you want to be loyal to, your Prime Minister or your constituents? The point is that backbenchers know that Cameron doesn’t really mean it, that he wouldn’t die in a ditch for them, so why should they die in a ditch for him?’

Another MP remarks:

‘Cameron lost tonight because yet again he failed to plan and treat each policy as a campaign. No 10 never try to work out Labour and they never present politics as a choice. It means no-one ever thinks he is a conviction politician.’

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