David Cameron has been summoning Tory backbenchers to Number 10 today to personally persuade them not to back an amendment to the Immigration Bill that would reintroduce controls on Bulgarian and Romanian migrants. I have learned that a number of possible waverers who could be persuaded to change their mind and drop their support for Nigel Mills’ amendment have been called to Downing Street as part of a serious whipping operation by the government.
The whips and party leadership have also been trying out a number of unusual tactics to minimise Thursday’s rebellion:
1. Tabling ‘backbench amendments’
Whips are also trying to persuade backbenchers that it is sufficient to back the amendments tabled by Stephen Phillips, which give the Home Secretary a duty to assess whether EU immigration is excessive, and to assess the effects of new countries joining the EU.
These amendments have been presented as ‘interesting’ backbench amendments by Number 10, but there is a suspicion that they may have had some official help. At any rate, the Prime Minister does instinctively want to support the amendments and I am told that he and Nick Clegg have been holding discussions about how both parties can deal with the Phillips amendments and will continue to do so in the coming days. The Liberal Democrats do not support them.
The rationale behind this is that amendments tabled by backbenchers could attract more support from dedicated rebels than an official government amendment (plus it’s a way of keeping the Lib Dems calm). Whips hope that they can siphon off enough support from the main Mills amendment to these side amendments. There is a big problem with this though. The Phillips amendments are not incompatible with the Mills amendments, which means many MPs may just choose to support both.
There is a chance that the Mills amendment and Dominic Raab’s one on deportation may not even get debated because of the limited time available for the report stage of the Bill. In spite of an extremely light legislative agenda at the moment, the powers that be have mysteriously found only four hours for the debate, and there is a slew of government amendments which by convention are debated first. This could mean that Raab’s second attempt at raising deportation on the floor of the House is scuppered by the same means, and the same could happen for the Mills amendment. This seems rather short-sighted, though, as it will only aggravate Conservative backbenchers.
I hear that Tory MPs received a note today asking them not to talk too much or ask too many questions at Business Statement on Thursday, as this precedes the report stage debate in the Commons.
3. Wheeling out the top dogs
Using the PM so early in the week is either a sign that the whips are seriously worried, or that they’re trying to be seriously organised. Perhaps the whips want to learn the lessons of far more serious uprisings, such as that over Syria, where the action didn’t really start until the day of the vote.
I hear on the Tory grapevine that the whips have generally become tougher recently and are handing out rollickings to MPs for missing even fairly minor votes without good reason. Unfortunately, this isn’t yet translating into obedience, but it could be a sign that Greg Hands as Deputy Chief Whip is keen to work on a tougher regime.