How Downing Street is planning to bribe Tory MPs to back the Brexit deal

The last reshuffle left several cabinet ministers without parliamentary private secretaries – roles which will be offered as “poor man’s knighthoods” ahead of the meaningful vote.

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The raft of ministerial appointments Theresa May made earlier this month filled most of the vacancies left by Brexit resignations, but created others that have gone largely unnoticed. 

Raising eyebrows among Conservative MPs is the failure of Julian Smith, the chief whip, to fill the job vacated by Kwasi Kwarteng, who was appointed to a junior ministerial role at Dexeu on 16 November.

Kwarteng had previously been on the government payroll as parliamentary private secretary to Philip Hammond. The role of PPS to a cabinet minister carries some prestige for the holder. More fundamentally, though, they serve the important function of giving busy ministers eyes and ears within the parliamentary party. 

Amid the Brexit maelstrom, that function of the PPS role is a valuable one, especially for senior ministers like Hammond, who have a very big stake in influencing the debate. That the Whips’ Office has left him without a PPS has caused considerable confusion among Tory MPs. 

I’m told, however, that there is a reason for what seems like neglect on Smith’s part. Asked about the omission at a recent meeting of Conservative MPs, he indicated that the post was being kept deliberately vacant ahead of the meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement on 11 December. 

The suggestion is that it will be offered as a “poor man’s knighthood” in a bid to encourage a would-be rebel to vote for the government, stop them resigning from it, or otherwise move one of them off the backbenches and onto the payroll to shore up the numbers. The same goes for two other (less glamorous) PPS roles: those attached to Steve Barclay and Penny Mordaunt. 

Will it work? It would be premature to rule it out, though there are two arguments for the prosecution to consider. The first is that the number of declared Tory opponents of the deal – a number of whom have resigned from government jobs anyway – now exceeds the number of MPs on the payroll. The number is still rising, and Brexiteers expect more resignations before the vote. Smith could well find there are few backbenchers willing to fill the deckchairs on a rapidly sinking ship. 

Exacerbating this is the opprobrium that was directed at John Hayes, the maverick former minister, after he accepted a knighthood last week. It will make MPs, especially Brexiteers, think twice before they take a job, not to mention an unpaid one, that will make them look like a willing patsy of Downing Street. 

Hayes was made an example of, but not in the positive way that was anticipated – the backlash will instead serve as a warning shot to others and in the end he came out against the deal anyway. And in any case, bringing a handful of MPs onto the payroll won’t change the fact that the arithmetic is now so bleak as to guarantee defeat for the government. 

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.