Peter Oborne

Blair downgraded the Labour whips – and now he is paying the price

Blair downgraded the Labour whips – and now he is paying the price

Text settings

Iin the immediate aftermath of the 2001 general election victory Tony Blair made a series of important organisational mistakes, for which he is still paying the price. Probably the most disastrous was the eviction of the government whips’ office from its historic base in 12 Downing Street. Alastair Campbell, director of communications, moved in with his media-handling entourage instead. Hilary Armstrong, the Chief Whip, spent the remainder of the summer scouring Whitehall for alternative accommodation. It was a humiliating state of affairs which immediately sent the message round Whitehall that the Chief Whip no longer counted.

The whips’ office had already been downgraded in other ways. Previous governments used the office as a training ground for rising stars. David Miliband, for example, would have been forced to serve two years’ hard labour with the whips rather than be plunged straight into a minister’s job. It would have done him good. Instead, New Labour fills up the whips’ office with the dullards and plodders. Worse still, it has been stripped of the power of patronage. All prime ministers before Tony Blair were broadly content to leave junior appointments in the hands of the Chief Whip. There were two reasons for this. First the whips, operating from the cockpit of Parliament rather than the isolation of No. 10, have a far better view of rising talent. Second, since the whips possessed the key to promotion, they had real powers over ambitious MPs at critical moments.

Nor was this all. The whips’ office also possessed power over other kinds of patronage: membership of quangos, a heavy input into the Honours List etc. This meant that the Chief Whip had at his or her disposal numerous tools of persuasion for use against not just younger, rising MPs but also older, passed-over MPs, disgruntled former ministers and so on.

All of this has been taken away from the whips and drawn into Downing Street. Under past governments chief whips — contemplate Michael Dobbs’s Francis Urquhart — have been frightening, mysterious figures. But Hilary Armstrong was downgraded into a harmless, administrative drudge. This became very clear when Cabinet ministers lined up on the Treasury bench for Prime Minister’s Questions after the 2001 election. Under all previous governments, whether of Right or Left, the Chief Whip occupied the seat to the right of the Prime Minister, next to the gangway. After 2001 it was pathetic to watch Armstrong squeezed out of this position, and often forced to crouch alongside all the parliamentary aides and other rabble and detritus on the gangway itself.

Though never formally set out, it was pretty clear what lay behind all this. Right from the first the Prime Minister and his aides were determined to turn No. 10 into an imitation of the White House. Armstrong was banished so that Downing Street could replace the whips’ office with the West Wing. Officials in No. 10, of whom Alastair Campbell was for many years the most formidable, were given the power, the respect and the patronage that had been torn from the Chief Whip. Campbell, not Armstrong, had the ability to ruin careers and offer inducements such as peerages. Once seen in this light, the circumstances leading up to the sudden departure of Campbell last summer become less of an individual trauma and more like the failure of an experiment.

The consequence has been very striking. Tony Blair has voluntarily deprived himself of the primary mechanism of enforcement used by all prime ministers since the party system started to take modern form at the start of the 19th century. The series of spectacular back-bench revolts which have been a defining feature of Tony Blair’s second administration — and might yet polish him off — can only be properly understood by taking into account the mistaken decision to emasculate the whips’ office. Tony Blair has achieved the impossible. Three years after winning a landslide majority of 160, he is forced to conduct his business as if he were leader of a minority government. This is failure of party management on a heroic scale.

One Downing Street insider says that at meetings with the Prime Minister, Armstrong ‘acts like a courtier, telling Tony what he wants to hear’. This is no use. The Prime Minister desperately needs a strong, loyal but independent figure, respected in Parliament, in whom he can trust. At one stage Peter Kilfoyle — now a rebel agitator, but once the loyal friend who signed Tony Blair’s nomination forms for the Labour leadership — would have been ideal for the job. It cannot be done by ciphers like Armstong and fixers like Baroness Morgan, Downing Street’s so-called ‘head of political and government relations’. Since returning to Downing Street from the Cabinet Office, Morgan has borne the burden of responsibility for the summer reshuffle — universally recognised as the most incompetently handled event of its kind in living memory — then foundation hospitals, and now the top-up fees shambles. No. 10 has lost its political touch. It will not find it again till it regains proper contact with the parliamentary party.

Study of the rebels shows the staggering extent of the failure. They extend far beyond the 40 or so ‘usual suspects’ who can be relied upon to oppose practically any measure. Whipper-in George Mudie is a middle-of-the-road figure who played a vital behind-the-scenes role last March helping Tony Blair win his vote over the war. Eric Illsley, who told the Yorkshire Post at the weekend that Blair should quit if he does not change his mind on tuition fees, is a loyalist. During the summer, as a member of the foreign affairs committee, Illsley bent over backwards to get the government out of trouble over Iraq. It is staggering that senior, respected figures like these should be leading the rebellion over top-up fees. As far as Labour MPs, though not Downing Street, are concerned, they carry much more weight than Hilary Armstrong does.

Top-up fees are painfully resented. But underlying this rebellion is irritation with Tony Blair’s system of government: his remoteness, arrogance and contempt for the parliamentary process. Tony Blair this weekend has about him a great deal of Lloyd George in 1922. He is in an unhappy coalition with a political party that he has never liked and does not even try to understand. It is a hazardous position for any prime minister.

It remains to be seen how Tony Blair manages the days that lie ahead to the perilous vote of 27 January. Attempts to solve the problem through grand ex cathedra pronouncements over the airwaves have proved horribly counterproductive. The only way through is to get deep down and dirty with his own party. In the short term this will almost certainly mean more concessions on top-up fees (and other things: Tony Banks’s change of mind can only be read as a certain indication that the government will smile on a hunting Bill this year). But the long-term solution is another matter entirely. Tony Blair is already abandoning his attempt to govern without the Cabinet. Next he would be well advised to drop his foolish mission to govern without Parliament. A good start would be to grasp that the attempt to convert Downing Street into a poor man’s White House has failed, and hand back to a new chief whip the key to No. 12.