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8 February 2008

Crack in the whips’ office

Former Tory MP Harold Elletson argues that the Conway affair has exposed a fissure in the Whips offi

By Harold Elletson

The row about £40,000 of payments from the public purse to the student son of a senior Conservative MP despite there being “no record” of his having done any work, caused no small amount of discomfort for Tory leader David Cameron.

It undermined his criticism of the government in the wake of the Hain and Abrahams crises and left his party open to the sort of damning charges they faced in the Major years.

In such circumstances, a party leader expects to be able to draw on the wisdom, experience and loyalty of his chief whip.

Few people understand the true purpose of a parliamentary whips’ office, which is to act as a political party’s intelligence cell in the House of Commons.

It is no accident that many of the great whips have been connected with one or other of the intelligence services. They are men (almost invariably) with a talent for the ‘black arts’ and an appreciation of the uses to which information can be put.

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They are a close-knit community and the most effective of them keep watch over their foot soldiers in the Commons with an eagle eye and an ear open to rumour and innuendo.

They are alert to snippets of gossip and whispers of betrayal, which can be stored, along with other useful information, in the celebrated ‘black book,’ whose existence is officially denied. They provide early warning of impending problems and deploy as crisis management teams when they arise.

As news broke of Derek Conway’s payments to his sons, ‘Dave’ turned to his chief whip.

Sir Patrick McLoughlin is not one of the old school, ex-intelligence officers, favoured by Tory leaders from Churchill to Thatcher.

Rather he is an ambitious ex-collier who helped to destroy the miners’ strike. When he left ministerial office in the lower reaches of the Department of Trade and Industry in 1995 bound for the Whips’ Office, he must have been relieved to see that the Tories’ traditional sleek spooks had been replaced, in John Major’s “classless” era, by a new breed.

Now Tory whips were men in his own image. And, among the senior whips, the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury, was his old friend Derek Conway.

The Register of Members’ Interests is a publicly available document, in which Members of Parliament list their financial interests, including any payments made to members of their family. Since its introduction in response to public concern, it has frequently been a rich source of embarrassment for both Government and Opposition politicians.

The old-style, intelligence officer whips would have known that it should be scanned from cover to cover with the thoroughness of a counter-espionage operation.

Yet McLoughlin, with twelve years experience as a whip in both government and opposition, seems not to have bothered to read it. Indeed, no-one in the Opposition Whips’ Office appears to have remarked to their colleague that it might be considered a little odd, to say the least, to pay both his sons as researchers when he was already employing his wife as a secretary.

No-one, it appears, least of all the chief whip, ever helpfully prodded Conway and reminded him that the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, not to mention the general public, might baulk at such a questionable use of public funds. Had they done so, Conway could have been discreetly persuaded to make appropriate recompense to the public purse without the subsequent oxygen of publicity.

After the embarrassment of the earlier affair of Michael Trend, the MP for Windsor, who was caught fiddling the parliamentary living allowance, one might have assumed that the Conservative Whips’ Office would tighten surveillance of MPs’ expense claims. Indeed, David Cameron may be wondering why on earth he even bothers to employ a chief whip, if such an obvious problem can remain undetected for so long.

McLoughlin is a man who has spent over a decade in the shadowy world of the whips’ office, prevented by convention from speaking in debates on the floor of the House, and questions abound as to whose side he is on. Is he a Europhile or a Europhobe? Is he a secret supporter of David Davis, who tried to protect brother Conway, or a loyal Cameroon? Is he the Tory leader’s guardian or his gaoler?

The answer to these questions will, perhaps, provide an explanation as to why Cameron, who describes himself with decreasing regularity as “a liberal Conservative,” remains unable or unwilling to force anything other than synthetic change on his party’s right wing.

The Conway fiasco has called McLoughlin’s position as chief whip into question. He seems to have failed in the most basic function of either a whip or an intelligence officer: to keep his boss properly appraised of the seriousness of an approaching problem.

Those in the Conservative party who are keen to sharpen Cameron’s instinct for reform will want to remove such an obvious relic of the old Major ‘nomenklatura.’ McLoughlin is hardly the Felix Dzerzhinsky of chief whips, but he knows where the bodies are buried.

He cannot have appreciated the public humiliation of being overruled by his leader and he could be awkward if Cameron were to move against him. Nevertheless, Chief Whips cannot afford to be seen to make mistakes – and there are plenty of his colleagues who will not be so forgiving if he slips again.

Harold Elletson was Tory MP for Blackpool North between 1992 and 1997. An international affairs consultant, he joined the Liberal Democrats in 2002

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