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16 July 2020updated 21 Jul 2020 2:04pm

The Grayling affair sums up Downing Street’s central parliamentary problem: ignorance

Better knowledge of Conservative MPs is a vital part of improving the government’s hopes of passing radical legislation.  

By Stephen Bush

The government’s failure to get its preferred candidate in to chair the intelligence and security select committee is, in microcosm, the story of this Downing Street’s parliamentary difficulties. No 10 had backed and advanced the candidacy of Chris Grayling, the only Cameron-era cabinet minister to have backed Brexit not to have been rewarded with a return to ministerial office under Boris Johnson. But they were thwarted when Julian Lewis, the Conservative MP for New Forest East, former defence select committee chair and the longest-serving sitting member of the ISC, ran against him and won, thanks to his vote and those of the opposition parties. 

A recurrent problem for all political parties is that members of parliament tend to become more rebellious as their careers continue, and that your ability to enforce discipline relies on your ability to hand out carrots as well as sticks. But it also relies on your knowledge of your own parliamentary party.

Lewis has always been a maverick and one prone to rebellion, and while he is undoubtedly well-qualified to hold the post, anyone who knew anything about his record of voting against the whip ought to have been aware of the high possibility that he would mount an operation of this nature. Add the fact he will be aged 72 when this parliament reaches its end, meaning there is no effective sanction available, and the attraction of a final important job in politics, and even someone with no history of rebellion should have been considered a bit of a flight risk. 

There’s also the basic human nature calculation: Lewis just is more qualified for this role than Grayling, and why wouldn’t he, knowing that and being able to count to five, decide to run for the post himself? This is always going to be the big problem with trying to get your preferred chair, and why Downing Street would have been wise not to bother: you only need one of the other Conservative nominees to decide they are more palatable to the opposition than the government’s preferred choice and to do a deal with the opposition parties to get elected.

All of these are facts that ought to be known to the government’s chief whip and to Downing Street: that Lewis is a) rebellious, b) good at courting opposition MPs and c) not really likely to fear even the extreme consequences aren’t things you need to be a genius to have known. Basic competency at parliamentary management ought to be enough. But No 10 doesn’t have this basic competency, for similar reasons I don’t spend time during office hours lifting weights – I don’t regard it part of my job.

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That remains the biggest single weakness at the heart of the government – that Downing Street doesn’t know the parliamentary party very well, doesn’t seek to cultivate it, and in particular hasn’t done a very good job keeping either those who have never held frontbench positions or been dismissed from them within the tent.

The response to the latest misstep is part of the problem, too: No 10’s preferred solution to discipline problems is either to threaten or to actually cast someone into the outer darkness, which creates an “in for a penny, in for a pound” attitude among the sacked and the rebellious. If Johnson does end up being removed by his own MPs, his approach to parliamentary management will be a big part of why.