A telling moment in today’s urgent question on the IMF’s economic outlook came when Angela Eagle pointed out the dearth of Tories who’d turned up to hear the Treasury defend its performance. She said:
Despite the minister’s bluster, the benches opposite are empty. They haven’t come in in large numbers to defend the government’s economic, er, results, have they?
Eagle argued that this was because the IMF had offered a ‘devastating forecast’ which ‘laid bare the economic incompetence’. But there’s another reason why the government benches were so quiet. It’s that the Conservative party machinery simply isn’t working very well.
Normally when there is an awkward session looming in the House of Commons, the whips and some Parliamentary Private Secretaries will organise a support group of MPs to come along and make helpful sounds from the green benches. These MPs will ask questions to allow the minister to catch their breath in between attacks from opposition MPs. ‘Support groups’ were formalised under David Cameron and George Osborne, with the Treasury Support Group in particular being a popular and noisy group of loyal (and ambitious) backbenchers who would meet before to work out their attacks on the opposition, as well as sharing ideas for supportive questions. It got to the point where membership of the TSG was considered so beneficial to one’s career that it was quite hard to find a backbencher who wasn’t in it.
That’s all fallen by the wayside in the years since. Support groups still exist but largely in the form of WhatsApp groups. They’re too large and leakable for proper political plotting and besides, most MPs are in so many WhatsApp groups that they’ve muted the majority of them.