The promotion of Alan Mak is meaningful in more ways than one

The Conservative MP’s elevation may be a sign that Boris Johnson has begun to understand the depth of his man problem.

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The sacking of Johnny Mercer has facilitated the arrival of Alan Mak to ministerial office: he joins the government as a junior whip. 

Mak’s promotion is significant for two reasons: it means Mak, the first British person of ethnic Chinese origin to be elected to the House of Commons, has also become the first British MP of ethnic Chinese origin to enter government.

But, more immediately, it is the most tangible sign that the new-look Downing Street operation understands the cause of some of its recent difficulties in getting business through parliament: the great and growing number of male MPs elected in 2010 and 2015 who fear they have no hope of ever achieving ministerial office. That was in part a result of the briefing around the last reshuffle, which emphasised heavily Boris Johnson’s aim to promote women. As a result, many previously loyal Conservative men started to rebel, a phenomenon I first wrote about in February 2020.  

They believed – rightly or wrongly – that electoral politics and Johnson’s own political interest meant that men elected before 2017 had no chance of entering government. Added to that, the presence of so many serial rebels at a ministerial level made several think that they were, as one put it to me, “playing a mug’s game” in voting loyally for three different prime ministers. As a result, indiscipline in the 2019 parliament has been pretty high. Almost every back-bench MP has rebelled at one point or another, but the most rebellious group are men in the 2015 intake.

Mak is an exception to the rule. Like most of the male MPs who entered parliament in 2015, he was loyal to both David Cameron and Theresa May, and has never rebelled against the party. Like most loyal backbench MPs, he is a long-term specialist in parliamentary questions of the “does the minister agree with me that the government is a friend to fluffy kittens and socially responsible businesses?” variety.

But unlike most of the MPs in that group, Mak didn’t become a perennial rebel in 2020: he remained in good standing with the whips. Giving him his first proper government job is a good move, because it sends two clear signals: loyalty is rewarded, and the anxieties felt by Tory men elected in 2015 are exaggerated. Given that a large part of a whip's job is encouraging loyalty and planting sympathetic questions, it's helpful, too, for the people doing it to be able to cite their own record of similar service. Several other male MPs have responded favourably to Mak’s promotion for this reason. 

I’m not saying that the government has fixed its man problem. When the dust settles after the reshuffle, the 2010 and 2015 intakes may conclude Mak’s promotion was something of a false dawn, or a sign that, having not been ultra-loyal themselves, they have no prospect of ministerial office. Or they may decide that the only exceptions to the rule are history-makers like Mak and Kwasi Kwarteng (the first elected black British politician to become a secretary of state).

If so, the new-look Downing Street may yet find it has very similar problems to the old one.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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