Katy Balls

Losing the plot | 1 November 2018

Theresa May is safe as long as MPs stay glued to their screens

Losing the plot | 1 November 2018
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How to explain Theresa May’s resilience? As Prime Minister, she has survived mishaps and calamities that would have finished off her predecessors. She has no shortage of rebels keen to succeed or denounce her, but all seem oddly unable to act. Why? The answer might lie in a group messaging service which seems to have disabled the ancient art of the Tory coup: WhatsApp.

Tory backbenchers are so addicted to this app that these days they cannot tear themselves away from their screens. It gives them the impression of being plugged into each other’s lives, when the opposite is true. Where MPs would once have met to scheme and gossip, they now send bad-tempered encrypted messages. WhatsApp allows MPs to stay informed in their offices and bedrooms rather than in the Strangers’ Bar. The result: no real-life relationships are created and the plots rarely get further than people typing words into their phones. It is the app where rebellion goes to die.

Over the past two years, WhatsApp has become a staple of the feuding Tory party. Its initial popularity was down to the fact that, unlike email, it is immune to Freedom of Information requests. That’s not to say it doesn’t leak. MPs can (and do) take pictures of what other colleagues say and pass them on to the media. Barely a week goes by without some MPs’ WhatsApp ‘exchange’ making its way into the news.

At first, all 315 Tory MPs contacted each other on an ‘official’ Conservative MPs’ group. But they have splintered into sub-groups, which are often at war with each other. The most prolific is the arch--Eurosceptics’ group run by the European Research Group (ERG). Its messages tend to be dominated by instructions from Steve Baker, a former Brexit minister, on how to vote tactically to disrupt whatever No. 10 plans. There are regular snipes about the anodyne conversations in the official group, as well as occasional outbursts from impatient members calling for the PM to go — but this never goes anywhere. Iain Duncan Smith uses the group to share links to articles he has written.

At the other end of the political spectrum are the arch-Tory Remainers Dominic Grieve and Antoinette Sandbach, who spend a lot of time messaging and plotting on the pro-EU Conservatives’ group. For those who view themselves as being sensibly in the middle on Brexit, there’s the BDG — Brexit Delivery Group — led by Simon Hart. This group is all about respecting each other’s opinions, so it is regarded as rather dry.

Not all groups are obsessed with Brexit. The ‘PPS 2018’ group is made up of parliamentary private secretaries, the MPs who act as unpaid aides to ministers, or, as one MP puts it, ‘desperate bag carriers asking for help in debates’. There are also ‘2015’ and ‘2017’ MPs’ groups. Even the government whips have one — WhipsApp (‘whips bitching about people and then procedural stuff’).

The smaller the group, the more interesting the conversations. With leaks the norm, MPs use the official groups to make public statements, safe in the knowledge that whatever they say will reach the press. When Grant Shapps tried and failed to oust May, MPs took to WhatsApp to denounce him and then pretended to be shocked that their comments were leaked. When Tory stalwart Christopher Chope blocked a bill on upskirting, many of his colleagues were furious. It would be unbecoming to round on him in public, but how to vent your anger in time for the six o’clock news? The answer: do it on WhatsApp. Journalists are always delighted to receive a screenshot of a ‘private’ Tory conversation.

But the Tories are so busy messaging each other they have little time for plotting. ‘I now get 50-80 WhatsApp messages a day,’ one member of government complains. Some of the most digitally verbose can even forget who they are plotting with: the Eurosceptic MP Nadine Dorries is known for posting messages meant for Brexiteers to all Tories. There is a ‘delete for everyone’ function that allows users to retract quickly. ‘Nadine tends to use it a lot,’ says one MP.

The embarrassment can be more than political. While on holiday, one male MP accidentally posted a half-naked photo of himself to all his Tory colleagues. Over in the Labour MPs’ group, there was a breach of etiquette when one parliamentarian decided to inform his colleagues at 2 a.m. about an upcoming bill. The message (announced with a ring) woke up a number of MPs’ young children and prompted a volley of expletives in response.

The leaks have led to some MPs taking drastic measures to keep their messages private. Earlier this year, one group — which includes a few ministers — switched over to using Confide. A ‘military-grade encryption’ app, its self-destructing messaging system means it is almost impossible to photograph incriminating messages. But it is a bit fiddly to use, so it has failed to catch on. A handful of MPs have been trying out Telegram, which is widely seen as the most secure of all the messaging services. The trouble is it is also Islamic State’s messaging service of choice, so MPs worry it may not be quite on brand.

The general effect is that the various warring factions become even more insular and the space for collaboration narrower. ‘I wouldn’t say WhatsApp is good for building relationships — or hanging out,’ admits one Tory, who is tired of dining alone. ‘It’s not what I expected when I got into politics.’

Labour rebels have been particularly debilitated by WhatsApp. When their messages about a possible Corbyn coup kept leaking they set up new smaller groups. Moderates would use the cover of an MP’s birthday to plot under an innocuous--sounding ‘Birthday Club’ group. But fear of spies led to the groups being so small that they ended up with just a select few members, who would then complain about how alone they were. Realising that WhatsApp wasn’t helping their cause, they organised an away-weekend at a luxury Grade II-listed farmhouse complete with Aga.

Conservative MPs have not yet got to this stage of desperation. But they might. It’s harder to leak private information when you’ve looked your co-conspirators in the eye. It’s also easier to tell if you have someone’s trust from body language than from an emoticon. Tory MPs still need somewhere they can meet, talk, drink, vent, conspire and even collaborate. Perhaps a tearoom, a bar or a pub. Plotters who mean business may find the old ways are still the best.

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