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29 December 2018

The rise of the 2017 intake reflects the surprising endurance of Theresa May

The prime minister has appointed Andrew Bowie, a Scottish Tory first elected last year, as her parliamentary private secretary.

By Patrick Maguire

Having made do with one for the last six months, Theresa May now has two Commons cornermen at her disposal.

Belatedly replacing George Hollingbery – who was appointed to full ministerial rank in June – is Scottish Tory MP Andrew Bowie. He gets a late Christmas present in the shape of a promotion from his current gig assisting the junior ministers at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport to that of parliamentary private secretary to the prime minister.

His has been a rapid rise: close to Ruth Davidson, he was the first of the 12 Scottish Conservative MPs who won their seats in 2017 to be given a government job, and is now arguably the most senior member of the 32-strong 2017 intake on the payroll. History suggests that rise will continue: recent holders of senior ministerial posts like Gavin Williamson and Sam Gymiah began their lives in government as PPS to David Cameron.

But should we care? The government’s PPS team – a squadron of unpaid MPs who act as the eyes and ears of ministers – has been much more conspicuous than usual in this parliament, in part because of frequent resignations from their ranks over Brexit. The popular (and lazy) conclusion drawn from that high degree of attrition is that the roles are meaningless and their occupants about as important – or worthy of public recognition – as primary school milk monitors. Asking who a PPS is after they announce their resignation from government is a very easy sport, and one that finds a dispiriting number of people who are literally paid to pay attention to these jobs, and those who hold them, all too keen to participate in it.

The irony, of course, is that by quitting their jobs those MPs are advertising their significance, rather than the other way round. In a minority parliament whose executive is run by a prime minister with a singular aversion to working on a cross-party basis and a Brexit policy that has all but permanently lost the support of DUP, the cost of losing a member of the payroll vote is massive.

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Take the last PPS resignation: in the immediate term, the government can of course function without Will Quince helping Gavin Williamson with his Instagram hashtags and other important Ministry of Defence business; several other cabinet ministers have been without them for some months too. But it is much less clear how the government survives Quince, and dozens of other former payroll members like him, voting against the project it exists to implement.

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Then there is the question of how effective a minister, especially in this febrile climate, can be without a trusted and effective PPS. Most would say not very. That people on Twitter haven’t heard of them is neither here nor there.

Bowie, though, was never on resignation watch. His appointment is a reward for ability and loyalty rather than a last-gasp inducement to it: he is a supporter of both May and the withdrawal agreement.

But what Bowie isn’t is a devout ideological Mayite: indeed, relatively few MPs are. Like many of his intake he is a supporter of Freer, the free market thinktank championed by Liz Truss, the hawkish Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Onward, another new Tory policy shop, is chaired by 2017er Neil O’Brien). Add to that the state the government finished the last parliamentary term in – and the gloomy prognosis for May’s premiership generally – and you might wonder what is in this gig for an ambitious young MP with an appetite for a dynamic new domestic policy agenda, especially given the payroll exodus of recent months.

What’s interesting about that exodus, however, is that only one of those 22 Brexit resignations came from a member of the 2017 intake – Ben Bradley, who quit as a Conservative Party vice-chair in July. Another 15 still hold government jobs, most as PPSs.

By comparison, only nine said they could not support the prime minister’s withdrawal agreement: Bradley, Ross Thomson, Andrew Lewer, Lee Rowley, Damien Moore, Douglas Ross, John Lamont, Julia Lopez and Giles Watling. Of these only three – Bradley, Rowley and Lewer – publicly declared they had no confidence in the prime minister earlier this month. So despite their ideological diversity and diverging views on Brexit, a clear majority of the 2017 intake supports the May ministry or believes it to be in their political self-interest to work for it.

That fact is a salutary reminder of the power Downing Street retains. The prime minister’s opponents within and without the Conservative Party often contend that she is in office but not in power. That might be true as far as the Commons as a whole is concerned but when it comes to her parliamentary party, May is – for the next eleven months at least – the only show in town. The power of patronage is and will remain hers alone: for the foreseeable future, there is little alternative for ambitious Tories who want to do things and get on but to get to work and get Brexit done, lest another snap election taketh away what 2017 giveth.

For these reasons, some on the Tory benches suspect that the outlook could be a shade brighter for May come the meaningful vote than the apocalyptic outcome most expect.