Who will be Boris Johnson's chief whip?

With a divisive Brexit policy and no majority, the frontrunner to succeed Theresa May cannot afford to get his choice of enforcer wrong.

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Once the race to succeed Theresa May concludes, and the purge of both the cabinet and the lower ministerial ranks begins, the infighting on the Conservative benches will make the unity and message discipline of the Parliamentary Labour Party look like that of a millenarian cult. If the next prime minister is to stand any chance of mitigating the divisions among their MPs – or, indeed, commanding a reliable majority for anything – they will need what May is widely agreed to have lacked: a decent set of whips.

Tory MPs of all persuasions agree that whoever wins should begin their reign with a clear out of the current whips’ office, whose failures are at this point too numerous to list even in heavily abridged form. Julian Smith’s team not only lacks the authority required to impose its will on a recalcitrant parliamentary party but also the necessary experience and institutional memory.

With the exception of Smith, his deputy Chris Pincher and Mark Spencer, another senior whip, the incumbent team is made up entirely of MPs appointed in the last three years. So unsuited were these rookies to the job of assembling a majority for the Brexit withdrawal agreement that Smith issued a plea for help to veterans of the whips’ office, with little success. Add to that their indelible association with May’s Brexit strategy and the political case for their wholesale replacement is unanswerable.

So who might Boris Johnson enlist to replace Smith? One name doing the rounds among MPs and whips from both main parties is Andrea Leadsom. The former leader of the Commons, who resigned in May, is keen to regain a cabinet berth and agrees with the frontrunner on Brexit. She is also among the small group of senior Tory women who are actively supporting his campaign, rather than pre-emptively making peace with its likely success. Her last job gave her plenty of experience of the stickier end of Commons procedure. As such, she could well be in a better position to pick up a big job than the inauspicious end of her own leadership bid might have suggested.  

Other names in the frame include Jake Berry, the Northern Powerhouse minister. One of Johnson’s close circle of personal allies, he is said to be especially keen. And it would also be remiss to omit Gavin Williamson, who along with Grant Shapps – another exile from government seeking a return to office – ran the Johnson whipping operation for last month’s ballots of Conservative MPs. The presence of Mark Sedwill as Cabinet Secretary would complicate the appointment of Williamson, given that he ran the leak inquiry responsible for his sacking. That, though, is a problem that may well solve itself before long.

But which of the candidates has the best chance of succeeding where Smith failed? Ultimately, the answer to that question will be beyond their control – no matter how competently they manage to exert it.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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