Iain Dale: Rudd, Clark, Gauke. After all their bluster about resigning, abstaining ministers took the cowardly way out

Plus: The Chief Whip’s swift transformation from Francis Urquhart to Mr Bean. And: why I can’t bring myself to vote Tory in the local elections.

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.

Where to start. I write this before the Article 50 extension votes have taken place on Thursday, but let’s face it, the main damage as already been done.

The only conclusion one can draw from the sorry events of this week is that the Prime Minister’s reputation has been further damaged, her government has been damaged below the waterline, the prospects of Brexit ever happening have been severely damaged, the reputation of the 14 government ministers who so courageously abstained against a three-line whip has been damaged, and the whole concept of collective responsibility and accountability has perhaps irreparably been damaged.

That’s a whole lot of damage.

– – – – – – – – –

Let’s start with the four Cabinet Ministers, eight junior ministers and two PPSs who failed to obey a three-line whip and abstained on the No Deal amended motion.

They deserve to be named. They are Amber Rudd, Greg Clark, David Gauke, David Mundell, Stephen Hammond, Richard Harrington, Tobias Ellwood, Robert Buckland, Alistair Burt, Margot James, Anne Milton, Claire Perry, Vicky Ford and Bim Afolami.

Two others, Sarah Newton and Paul Masterton, voted against the three-line whip. At least they had the honour and courage to resign, unlike their abstaining colleagues.

had to laugh when I heard Greg Clark on Peston trying to make out he and his 13 colleagues had done something courageous. No. Abstaining is never an act of courage. Actually voting against a three-line whip and then resigning – that’s an act of political courage or honour.

Some weeks ago, we were told 40 ministers would resign if they were whipped to vote for a No Deal Brexit. A couple of weeks ago we were told a dozen would do so. In the event only one did. These ministers have all the courage of a an Italian tank commander with one forward gear and four reverse gears.

As Iain Duncan Smith has pointed out, why would any MP take a three-line whip seriously any longer? The traditional system of whipping is now dead. It’s now effectively a free for all.

Julian Smith, the chief whip, has been completely undermined by whoever it was in Number 10 who let it be known that no abstaining minister would lose their jobs. He must surely now be considering his position, too.

Because no-one will now ever again be able to believe any threat he issues. He’s gone from Francis Urquhart to Mr Bean in the space of a few hours. It’s not his fault, but that’s the reality he now faces. And all thanks to those brilliant political strategists in Number 10. If it wasn’t so tragic, you’d have to laugh.

– – – – – – – – –

A former Tory MP of my acquaintance texts to say he can’t possibly vote Conservative in the local elections on 2nd May. A lot of people will be feeling like that.

I won’t be doing so either, although that’s less to do with the hapless state of the Government, and more to do with the incompetence of my local Tory council in Tunbridge Wells, which, to coin a phrased used by Boris Johnson this week, is “spaffing” £92 million up the wall by building a totally unwanted and unneeded civic centre in one of the town’s most scenic parks.

I’ll be voting for the group of local protesters who are putting up candidates in every ward to fight it. Or at least, I hope they are. If I didn’t do the job I do, I’d stand myself.

– – – – – – – – –

It defies belief that Theresa May will now bring her Meaningful Vote back for a third try next week. It ought to be dead as a dodo. But of course, it’s straight from the Olly Robbins playbook. Back on 12th February he was overheard saying: “…Got to make them believe that the week beginning end of March… Extension is possible but if they don’t vote for the deal then the extension is a long one…”.

And so it has come to pass. Project Fear triumphs. On Newsnight on Tuesday, Emily Maitlis asked me: “So when did it all go wrong for Theresa May?” My two co-panellists gave two very earnest answers. When my turn came, I replied: “When she started listening to Olly Robbins rather than David Davis.” Many a true word spoken in jest…

– – – – – – – – –

Tonight, I’m appearing on Any Questions on Radio 4. It’s about the tenth time I’ve been on the show and it’s one of those programmes I never say no to, mainly because I enjoy doing it and it enjoys a unique place in the listening public’s affections.

I must admit when I heard it entailed going all the way to Carlisle I did slightly hesitate. Not that I have got anything against Carlisle, but it means I won’t get home until 3 or 4am. It will be the last time I share an Any Questions platform with Jonathan Dimbleby, who is retiring from presenting the show in June. He’s an absolute pro and presents the show brilliantly.

I’m on with Therese Coffey, Layla Moran and Andy McDonald. I suspect that the questions will be dominated by Brexit, but the Spring Statement and Bloody Sunday will surely come up too. But there are always one or two questions which are impossible to anticipate. That’s when you show your metal. I wonder who will succeed Jonathan as the show’s presenter. Maybe I should apply… 😊

Collective responsibility, May-style. Defy the Whip – and you won’t be fired.

Though there may have been extenuating circumstances – namely, contradictory instructions from Number Ten and the Whips respectively.

We are about to break one of this site’s golden rules – namely, never to list MPs who abstain on a Government motion.

The reason for this is that absention doesn’t automatically equal defying the whip.  The MP concerned could be abroad.  He or she could be ill.  He could be on urgent family business.

None the less, there must be a reasonable presumption that, if a pro-Remain or Soft Brexit Minister didn’t vote with the Government in the final vote this evening, he was breaking the Whip.  The following names are being listed:

  • David Gauke, Justice Secretary.
  • Greg Clark, Business Secretary.
  • David Mundell, Scotland Secretary.
  • Amber Rudd, Work and Pensions Secretary.
  • Claire Perry, Business Minister, entitled to attend Cabinet.
  • Robert Buckland, Solicitor-General.
  • Alistair Burt, Foreign Office Minister.
  • Tobias Ellwood, Defence Minister.
  • Stephen Hammond, Health Minister.
  • Richard Harrington, Business Minister.
  • Margot James, Business Minister.
  • Ann Milton, Education Minister.

Now, it may well be that there are extenuating circumstances.  First, it wasn’t expected that the Government’s motion would be amended. Before it was passed, the whip for the Government’s motion was for a free vote.

Next, it is being claimed that a senior MP, or Downing Street aide, or both, indicated to some of the Ministers concerned that they would be able to abstain on the motion still – despite the amendment, originally tabled by Caroline Spelman, having been passed.

The long and short of it is that it isn’t clear as we write which of the above, bar Mundell, acted knowingly in defiance of a three-line whip.  And the waters will doubtless be muddied sufficiently so that we never know.

Sarah Newton, a Work and Pensions Minister, and Paul Masterton, a PPS, are reported to have voted against the whip, and resigned.

8.30am Update March 14: It is being reported that Bim Afolami, Vicky Ford, Peter Heaton-Jones, Simon Hoare and Victoria Prentis, all PPS’s, also abstained, together with Nigel Huddleston, a Party Vice-Chair.

The 66 Tories who voted against ‘Malthouse Two”

Several Ministers helped to see off the Government’s best hope of avoiding a full-on crisis in the Party – and perhaps of saving Brexit too.

This morning, our editor identified the Green Amendment – so-called ‘Malthouse II’, or ‘Amendment F’ – as the Government’s best hope saving the Conservative Party, if not Brexit itself.

Backed by Conservative and DUP MPs, the motion (which we detailed here) sought to ease the path towards a no-deal exit by giving businesses more information and brokering so-called ‘standstill’ arrangements with the EU.

However the Government did not whip in support of the motion, and on a free vote – and with the usual power of the whip and payroll already disintegrating – several high-profile members of the Cabinet helped to see it convincingly defeated.

  • Richard Bacon
  • Guto Bebb
  • Nick Boles
  • Jack Brereton
  • Steve Brine
  • Alistair Burt
  • James Cartlidge
  • Alex Chalk
  • Jo Churchill
  • Greg Clark

 

  • Kenneth Clarke
  • Stephen Crabb
  • Tracey Crouch
  • Jonathan Djanogly
  • Jackie Doyle-Price
  • Mark Field
  • Vicky Ford
  • Kevin Foster
  • Roger Gale
  • David Gauke

 

  • Nick Gibb
  • Bill Grant
  • Justine Greening
  • Dominic Grieve
  • Andrew Griffiths
  • Sam Gyimah
  • Luke Hall
  • Richard Harrington
  • Oliver Heald
  • Peter Heaton-Jones

 

  • Simon Hoare
  • Philip Hollobone
  • John Howell
  • Nigel Huddleston
  • Margot James
  • Marcus Jones
  • Phillip Lee
  • Oliver Letwin
  • David Lidington
  • Alan Mak

 

  • Paul Masterton
  • Johnny Mercer
  • Huw Merriman
  • Anne Milton
  • Damien Moore
  • Anne Marie Morris
  • David Morris
  • James Morris
  • Robert Neill
  • Andrew Percy

 

  • Claire Perry
  • Victoria Prentis
  • Mark Pritchard
  • Douglas Ross
  • Amber Rudd
  • Antoinette Sandbach
  • Chloe Smith
  • Nicholas Soames
  • Caroline Spelman
  • Rory Stewart

 

  • Gary Streeter
  • Kelly Tolhurst
  • Ed Vaizey
  • Matt Warman
  • Giles Watling
  • Mike Wood

Chris White: May faces a huge task – and she has made it harder for herself by neglecting the Whips’ Office

The next few days will require the application of every type of pressure, with finesse. Experienced whips would have known how to do that.

Chris White was Special Adviser to Patrick McLoughlin, when the latter served as Chief Whip, as well as to Andrew Lansley and William Hague when each served as Leader of the House. He is now Managing Director of Newington Communications.

In just one week, the House of Commons will have its meaningful vote on the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal.  Depending on your point of view, the result of the vote will either lead to security for the UK’s economy, or we will be locked into a deal from which we can never leave.

This article is not about the merits of the deal, but the machinations behind the scenes ahead of the vote on Tuesday 11th December.

The Prime Minister has decided to go for a Brownian masochism strategy – a tour of the four nations, a TV debate, meeting business leaders in Number 10. Yet while her attempt to increase public support for the deal may yet succeed, it is not in the public domain where the vote will be won and lost.  Her electorate is not the 38 million people who can vote in a general election, but the 639 MPs eligible to vote on Tuesday evening*.

Paul Goodman wrote eloquently last week on the task the Government faces, and proposed ways that the Government could reach its winning margin of 318 votes (don’t forget to discount two tellers from each voting lobby).  The size of the task is vast.  Mark Wallace has estimated that 66 MPs oppose the deal, 26 probably oppose it, and another 7 describe the deal as difficult to support. That makes around 100 Tory MPs on the whips’ list on the debit column, including uber-loyalists ranging from Michael Fallon to Robert Syms, and that doesn’t even include those who haven’t publicly declared.  Whilst not all of these will end up voting against the Government, unless more than 50 Labour MPs can be swung to support the deal, it is doomed.

Number 10 and the whips’ office realise this.  They have set up a war-room in Downing Street to game-plan the different scenarios, and the chief whip summoned all former whips who are still MPs to a meeting in the Commons – when this happens, you know it’s serious.  But for all the talk of margins and votes, it is important to remember that each MP is an individual, not a number.

MPs are just like any cross section of society, and it’s just the same with the ‘rebels’ who are planning to vote against the Government.  Some can be persuaded to change their minds on policy grounds, others that to vote against the Government will let Jeremy Corbyn into power.  Many have ambitions for higher office, more still have local constituency concerns such as the need for a local bypass or improvements to a local hospital.  A few will be dazzled by promises not of advancement, but knighthoods or peerages.

Enoch Powell is believed to have said that whips are as necessary a part of Parliament as sewers are of civilisation.  More than at any other time the next two weeks will see Number 10, the whips’ office and the Chancellor engaged in the grubbiest, dirtiest chequebook politics possible behind the scenes to try and win this vote.  But to do so they need to understand the MPs themselves.

Aside from the two or three senior whips, every whip will have their own ‘flock’ of around 25 MPs. From the moment they are appointed to the Office, each whip’s job is to know intimately the issues affecting that MP.  They need to speak regularly to them, understand their ambitions and concerns, know them better than their own partners. That knowledge has to be earned and cannot be gained overnight.

To do all of this, Downing Street and the chief whip and his whips must have credibility, and the knowledge gained from years of experience.  The Prime Minister is hampered by the political reality that even should she deliver a deal through Parliament, the Conservative Parliamentary Party will likely remove her from office shortly afterwards, demanding a new leader not tainted by Brexit and a failed General Election.  Her political capital, and her patronage, is ebbing away, as evidenced by the hamfisted decision to go outside the political honours process to knight John Hayes, only for him to declare he was voting against the deal regardless.

The Chief Whip and his Office is also restricted in a different way.  I wrote earlier this year of the lack of trust between the Chief and his MPs caused by the pairing row. That will have an effect on the whipping operation, and so too will the extraordinary inexperience of the whips themselves.  None of the four senior whips – Julian Smith, Chris Pincher, Mark Spencer and Andrew Stephenson – were appointed to a post in the Office before July 2016.

Of the more junior whips, five were appointed in June 2017, five more in January this year, two more in July this year, and two earlier this month.  The entire experience of the whips office – 18 MPs –  amounts to a total of 21 years and 8 months**.  If that sounds a lot, remember Patrick McLoughlin was a whip continuously for 17 years by himself.

I must be clear that no criticism should be laid at the individual whips themselves – they have an incredibly hard job to do – and it is not their fault that the lack of planning and forethought from the Prime Minister and the Chief Whip has led to this position.  What is damning is that we have known for two years that this vote is coming, and no effort has been made to retain or bring back any experienced whips in the office for what is the most crucial vote the Government could face.  The decision to sack or move the likes of Anne Milton, David Evennett and Robert Syms looks incredibly short sighted.

It is hard to see how the Prime Minister can win.  She lost another Minister – Sam Gyimah – over the weekend, and she is making bizarre tactical decisions: touring the country instead of meeting her own MPs, and sending pro-deal leaflets to party members, provoking outrage from Tory MPs who see this as a misuse of party funds.

I fully expect the Prime Minister to lose the vote, and by a substantial margin of between 100 and 200 votes.  If so we must watch how Tory MPs split, not just what the final numbers are.  If the Prime Minister cannot win more than half her party, or perhaps more than half her 200 backbenchers, she will be under extraordinary pressure.

*650 MPs, discounting 7 Sinn Fein who do not take their seats, and the Speaker and three Deputy Speakers.

**Whips’ experience: