Snippets from Confessions of a Recovering MP...
(Do check back soon, new extracts will be posted every now and then!)
Published by Biteback Publishing Westminster Tower,3 Albert Embankment,London,SE1 7SP
Published by Biteback Publishing Westminster Tower,3 Albert Embankment,London,SE1 7SP
WHIP ME, AND WHIP ME AGAIN
I never intended to rebel against the government.
Sure, I said I would rebel if necessary, when asked by con- stituents both before the election in 2010 and after, but I was
pretty confident that there would be no need to actually do it. After all, every new MP understands that the best way to bring about change is by being a good lad and getting a job on the ministerial ladder, don’t they?
It was the same at school. Behave, don’t grow your hair too long, be nice to the headmaster if invited round for tea and, of course, if you must smoke don’t get caught. Simple enough, and almost always a ticket to being made a prefect of some level or another. Unfortunately, I broke all those rules except for being nice to the headmaster at tea, but that’s simply because I was never invited.
So, less than ten weeks into the new parliament, some silly sod came up with a plan to agree to an increase in the budget for the grossly bloated EU Commission. The Commission would of course fritter it away in sun-bleached countries of the Medi- terranean and a good chunk of Eastern Europe – after, that is, Commission officials had taken their extra slice for their own offices, cars, travel and entertainment budget. Unfortunately, at the same time as agreeing to this, we were busy warning the country that we would be cutting their child benefit allowance and other state giveaways that had become, by default, part of the household budget.
I didn’t need to actually knock on the door of Mr and Mrs Enfield North to work out how the conversation might go.
‘Morning, I am Nick de Bois, your local MP, calling round to introduce myself and see if there is anything you would like to raise with me?’
‘How many kids have you got?’
‘Eh? Four by my first marriage and two stepchildren.’
‘How old are they?’
‘My kids are grown up and my stepchildren...’
‘So, all right for you then on your 65 grand a year, plus you had
child benefit when you needed it, but now you seem to think it’s OK to screw Middle England but give more money to the EU!’
‘Well, yes, but I can assure you the Prime Minister has se- cured a cut in the EU budget for future years and...’
‘Oh, it’s all right for him, he can bloody well afford to lose the child benefit. I suppose that’s what he means by “We’re all in it together”, then? Him, and the sodding Europeans!’
And the inevitable finish...
‘I voted for you as well!’
The choice that faces every MP at some point or another is to
cross your constituents or cross your party whips. All whips are MPs promoted by the Prime Minister to ensure that the pro- gramme of government gets through the House of Commons. They are there as managers of the government’s business, not man- agers of people. It’s not their job to care about people, but to care that the people they manage vote the way they want them to vote.
My general rule of thumb, established after my first rebellion, was simple. If a vote was on issues in the manifesto we were elected on, or in the Budget, then I had a duty to support it. Broadly speaking, that’s what I was elected to do. As far as I was concerned, anything else was up for grabs.
First, though, came my initiation into rebelling, and my in- troduction to the whips.
First rule: to mitigate the wrath of the whips, give them warn- ing that you intend to vote against the government. It’s not fair on them to be taken by surprise and, much like duellists in the nineteenth century inviting opponents to choose the weapons, it is, after all, the decent thing to do.
Second rule: do not under any circumstances think this will lessen the assault on you. In fact, it just ensures that they have sufficient time to deal with you.
Third rule: remember that they are just doing their job.
Email is a wonderful invention when it comes to rebelling. The utterly cowardly thing to do is to send an email, often at peak time, forewarning of your impending rebellion in the hope that they don’t read it until much later, and so narrow the window of opportunity to put the screws on you. You will have done your duty to notify them, but it’s hardly in the spirit of fair play. Shamefully, in my first rebellion, this is exactly what I did. Even then it was strangely pathetic.
Email to: Whips’ Office Email from: Nick de Bois Sent: 2.36 p.m.
Hi, somewhat concerned about government proposal on EU budget and will probably be voting against it.
Probably? Why not just invite them round to change your mind!
Email to: Nick de Bois Email from: Your Whip Sent: 2.39 p.m.
Thanks for your email. I would like to talk to you face-to-face.
Crap. That didn’t work then.
Between 2.39 p.m. and 10 p.m. when the vote took place, there were three visits from the whips. The first was a simple chat on a one-to-one basis. ‘I know you are new here, and you may not be aware that if you rebel, the Prime Minister will be told about this’ (accompanied by a knowing look).
‘Yes, I do, and to be fair, that’s the point of my vote. I want him to know.’
‘Well, wouldn’t it be better if you just told him rather than rebel?’
Hmm, good point.
‘That wouldn’t be enough, because at the end of the day I have to explain to my constituents why we’ve increased the budget to Brussels yet we’re cutting budgets at home.’
‘Let’s talk later.’ First round: an honourable draw, I thought.
The fascinating thing about a rebellion is that they are rarely organised, yet those who plan to vote against the government tend to gravitate towards each other and effectively bolster each other’s determination to see it through to the end. This unoffi- cial network is very helpful, though in the early months of the parliament, no one was entirely sure if fellow rebels would see it through to actually going into the opposition voting lobby when it came to the vote at 10 p.m. Meanwhile, at least I knew where to find some mutual support: none other than the cham- ber in the House of Commons, where it was also not quite so easy for the whips to nobble you.
Sure enough, having found a measure of reassurance amongst colleagues, I watched my whip come into the chamber and start to pick us off one by one. We all expect this, but as we watch pressure being applied, and hear talk of banishment to the back benches and the abandonment of hope for a ministerial job for decades, all we are thinking is: ‘Will they buckle?’ There is no judgement by colleagues; it’s always a personal decision to rebel or not.
The downside of being in the chamber hiding from the whips’ wrath is that some ultra-loyal colleagues will take issue with you if it is known you are minded to rebel. The most prominent of these colleagues was Anna Soubry, MP for Broxtowe, who would gladly dish out a tongue-lashing to any potential rebel. Never shy of sharing her views with friend or foe, Anna found her telling-offs soon became a badge of honour. Most notable was her running commentary during PMQs if any fellow Conservative dared raise the question of the EU and in particular the then promise of a referendum.
‘Utter nonsense, sit down and behave’ or ‘Oh, do stop going on and on, for pity’s sake’ were the sort of matronly comments we would hear as Anna’s opinion carried across the chamber.
How deliciously ironic that after the Brexit referendum during which Anna campaigned vigorously to remain, her perspective on loyalty has changed. She is now the most vocal anti-Brexit rebel on the Conservative back benches. I saw her at the party conference in 2016 when I reminded her of this change of heart, and not least that I had been on the receiving end of an ear-bashing or two from her in my time.
‘Well, there’s no effective opposition so I have to do it,’ she proclaimed. No double standards there, then.
But Anna was not my principal concern on this occasion.
Around 6 p.m., I received an email summoning me to meet with a senior whip.
Email to: Nick de Bois Email from: Snr Whip Sent: 6.02 p.m.
Please meet with whip in Whips’ Office as soon as possible.
Email to: Snr Whip Email from: Nick de Bois Sent: 6.06 p.m.
Thanks, I’m having a cup of tea and will happily meet with whip in Members’ Lobby in 10 mins.
There was no way on earth I was going to meet with the whip in the Whips’ Office. There is no private office for meetings except the Chief Whip’s. You would be grilled ostensibly by one whip, but in fact subject to about four other whips all keenly listening to every word and contributing as and when they wished. It would have been no contest. Manchester United against Altrincham, at Old Trafford, with eleven players against one. That was a non-starter.
Email to: Nick de Bois Email from: Snr Whip Sent: 6.07 p.m.
The final showdown was something of a disappointment. Faced with two of us to persuade not to vote against the government, he easily turned my colleague on the grounds that the motion we were supporting, which was an amendment against the gov- ernment, was in fact illegal. One down, just me to go.
‘That’s all very well, but my constituents won’t see the subtle- ties of the motion; they’ll just see me voting for an increase in the EU budget.’
‘How about abstaining then?’
‘I don’t like abstaining. We weren’t sent here to sit on our hands.’ ‘Don’t be bloody stupid, your constituents won’t even notice
how you vote.’
‘They will if someone tells them, and I certainly intend to do
‘You know this will be noticed in the Whips’ Office, so think
carefully before you do this.’
‘That’s not a threat, is it?’
‘No, but it does mean, well, we’ll look at you differently in
the future.’ ‘How?’
‘Well, it means...’ Pause. ‘...We will look at you in a funny way in future!’
And that’s the moment it dawned on me. I was once told the whips are all-powerful. Yet the reality is the whips are only as powerful as you choose to make them.
If ministerial office and rank, both perfectly respectable aims for MPs, are the most important things for an individual then, yes, the whips have tremendous influence because they recommend you for the position. If, however, you are not dependent on the patron- age of the whips, if you value the role of backbench parliamentar- ian, then that’s as close to becoming an independent-minded MP as you can expect to be. The trick, of course, is to strike a balance between that and maintaining a relationship with your ministerial colleagues so that you can, if needs be, get something done. So, don’t piss your colleagues off too much or too often.
Meanwhile, on this occasion, the ‘Noes’ lobby welcomed me with open arms, but needless to say, the government won.