Moving your chief whip when you’re in a minority government is pretty brave. In trying to work out who to replace Michael Fallon with at the Ministry of Defence, Theresa May was obviously going to have to consider who she trusted to be able to retain the job for as long as the previous occupant (Fallon was a few months short of becoming the longest-serving Conservative Defence Secretary in history), but trusting your chief whip when you don’t have the parliamentary numbers is important too.
But though Williamson had built up an image as an old school whip, boasting about the value of a ‘sharpened carrot’ in an unusual public speech at conference, and making it known (in a rather school-boyish fashion) that he had a pet tarantula, he hadn’t actually reached the biggest tests of his job. The EU Withdrawal Bill had been paused while ministers worked out what to do with it, and Tory rebels tell me that they only started hearing from those ministers and whips this week. They hadn’t taken much persuading to hold their fire until committee stage – and now that the bill is about to start that stage, it is still unclear whether the government has a majority on a number of key issues.
Furthermore, Williamson was responsible for the policy of ignoring Opposition Day votes, which Labour artfully turned into a row about contempt of Parliament. The whips had been highly indecisive about whether they could continue to tell their MPs to abstain on these non-binding votes, showing how little authority they really have.
It is true that Williamson has not presided over any ‘proper’ defeats of the government, and this has made a huge difference to its sense of stability. But this is partly because the government is too scared to attempt anything which might even raise the possibility of a defeat, unless it really has to, as on Brexit. That’s why everyone is so tense about housebuilding policy and why MPs are finding themselves discussing electric cars in the Chamber.
He had undoubtedly become an important member of the government after the snap election, with many backbenchers praising Williamson’s ability to listen to colleagues and treat them with respect (while watched by his tarantula). His replacement does indeed have a hard act to follow: but Julian Smith’s job is harder than Williamson’s merely because it involves confronting some of the most difficult challenges for the government.
James outlines the characteristics of the new chief whip here. One of the challenges for Smith and for his new deputy, Esther McVey, isn’t just the question of shouting at or cajoling MPs: it is also a pastoral one. The practices of the whips in collating information about backbenchers’ personal lives have been discussed once again this week, and there will be a number of MPs who are feeling extremely bruised by the sexual harassment scandal raging in Westminster. Some of them say they have been wrongly accused, others feel their consensual personal lives have been dragged into a story which is about rapes and serious harassment. While there should be no sympathy for the types who are wandering the corridors claiming that ‘now you can’t even flirt with an attractive woman’ (that’s not what this is about: it’s about abuse of power), there is also a risk that MPs, who are highly public figures, end up being dragged into a row when they are genuinely innocent of any wrongdoing. Some are nervous of being hung out to dry by their parties when they have merely had affairs or even just sexual relationships with other single coworkers who they don’t have a position of power over, and who aren’t decades younger than them. The memories of the expenses scandal are still raw for those who didn’t do anything wrong: a good whipping operation will involve proper support for the good ones, as well as proper discipline – rather than tolerance of – the bad.