Are these the party poopers?

Tories relished Clare Short's gaffe about tax last week, but as John Redwood proves, no party is immune to the embarrassing power of MPs who speak their minds. John Rentoul explains how they are policed and picks the 10 most likely to keep their leaders awake at night
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As Clare Short, the Labour MP, came out of BBC Broadcasting House, her electronic pager started beeping. "Ring Tony at home", was the message. Most politicians wear pagers now - they are the equivalent of reins for controlling political toddlers in the nursery-school period that precedes the general election.

Ms Short had just done what she does so well, that is speak with obvious passion and sincerity about an important political issue. But she had contradicted the party line, which is not to say anything about tax rates and levels until Gordon Brown, the Shadow Chancellor, says so.

"I think in a fair tax system people like me would pay a bit more tax," she said. Not only was it what she thought, but it is what most people think most Labour MPs think. But it is not what they are supposed to say.

So the next question was not, "how much more?" but whether her comments had been cleared with Mr Blair. She replied: "It's cleared with me. I speak for what I see to be the truth." This, again, was not what she was supposed to say. And she repeated it the next day on BBC radio. Hence her pager message.

Clare Short is only the sharpest example of the tension that pulls MPs in opposite directions every time they speak. There is Short's view, derived from Edmund Burke, that MPs are elected to speak for what they see to be the truth. And there is the view, which dates from the origin of organised political parties, that MPs can only achieve things if they submit to collective discipline. This means they have to suppress some of their views in order to put some of their principles into practice.

So complaints about the infantilisation of politics, particularly in pre-election periods, are really complaints that the balance has tilted too far in one direction. Roy Hattersley - one of the Labour managers' headaches - complained yesterday that his party was too defensive in the face of the trivial media obsession with "gaffes".

But party whips have existed for as long as parties, and their activities have always been pilloried. Only now they are called spin doctors and they use more modern blandishments. Ms Short was subjected to the modern form of the lash: being rubbished by unattributable "Blair aides", who described her comments as "unprofessional" and "infelicitous".

It is worse for the Conservatives. In the end, party discipline cannot effectively be imposed - it is a matter of self-discipline exerted as a collective act of will. Labour MPs have learnt this the hard way over 17 years, so that party loyalty is now a deeply ingrained reflex. But for many Tories, issues of Europe and nationhood are now being put above party. There is not much the whips and spin doctors can do about that, except what they are doing under the determined leadership of the Prime Minister - moving crabwise, hesitantly to a more Eurosceptical position.

The whips on both sides of the Commons spend a lot of time trying to control backbenchers, but it doesn't matter too much what they say as long as they vote the right way. An outspoken attack on the party line on either side can be dismissed as "just the usual suspects".

Party managers have much more to fear from the misplaced words of ministers or their shadows. Monday's foolishness about retaliating against the European beef ban was a good example of how not to do it. First the Daily Telegraph was told that members of the Cabinet - led by Michael Heseltine - were so cross about the ban that they were considering all manner of unreasonable responses. Downing Street sources and Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, carefully refused to rule out retaliation. Then Mr Heseltine himself took to the television screens to extol the virtues of patient diplomacy. On this form, pagers such as Clare Short's will be beeping pleading messages all over Britain from now until polling day.


Brian Mawhinney

Danger area: radio, Today programme in particular

His ill-judged and faintly Freudian outburst in front of Sue MacGregor on the Radio 4 Today programme last week - "you have just suggested to me that we should dump the Prime Minister!"- confirmed his reputation as a short-tempered bruiser. It was initially read as part of a concerted attempt to intimidate the BBC, but was clearly a genuine outburst: precisely the sort of thing party managers worry about but can't prevent - even though Mawhinney is the party manager who is supposed to worry about such things. Labour attempts to paint him as a worthy successor to Jeremy "The Gaffer" Hanley won't work, but he has timebomb potential.

Kenneth Clarke

Danger areas: radio and TV, if surprised by reporters

The Chancellor is always teetering on the brink of saying something interesting. Last week on Sky TV he described worrying public borrowing figures as "eyebrow-raising", before adding swiftly that no "serious" eyebrows were, of course, raised. Students of gaffology particularly enjoyed his praise for the steelworks in Consett last year (which closed 15 years earlier) and his attempt to make up for it by knowing about its world- beating nappy factory (which closed four years before). More significant were his 1993 admission that the Government was in "a deep hole", and his recent threats to split the Cabinet over the single European currency.

John Redwood

Danger area: newspapers, when he writes for them

Has defied some predictions by not fading away after his challenge for the Tory leadership last year. Particularly dangerous for Mr Major is his sidling up to Sir James Goldsmith this week. Redwood said the terms of the billionaire's blackmail threat to the Government over a Euro-referendum were "worth considering", and he is to meet Sir James soon to discuss mutual publicity. He is a regular columnist, source and quotable rent- a-quote for the Eurosceptic Tory press. Hence Major's feeble appeasement last week, getting a flunkey to phone him to say the PM "did not mean him" when he slagged off calls for "reckless and silly" tax cuts.

Sir Edward Heath

Danger areas: TV, radio and the House of Commons

Has always sworn he would never actually be disloyal to the party he once led, but has the capacity to inflict immense damage, particularly during the election campaign. A Heath tirade on Europe could resemble a souped-up version of Jim Callaghan's famous "Exocet" against Labour's defence policy in the 1983 election. He moves occasionally to deliver increasingly un-coded put-downs of Eurosceptic ministers and, by implication, criticises the weakness of the Prime Minister who won't be firm enough. Though he will be 80 in July, he is not retiring yet, implying that if there is a fight for the future of the Tory party, he wants to be part of it.

The Unknown Defector

Danger areas: TV and newspapers

The big worry for the Government whips, of course, is that someone they can't buy off is harbouring secret plans to cross the floor of the House, cancelling the Government's majority. Few will have heard of the MP who walks, much less remember what he looks like. Even the Tory whips' office will be a bit vague - and they'll have forgotten that he was a passionate pro-European. After keeping a lid on his resentment for two years, he will decide to act on his conviction that Tony Blair would make a better One Nation Tory PM than John Major. Unless, that is, the defector is Edwina Currie, who is neither male nor obscure, but about whom the whips can still do nothing.


Clare Short

Danger area: TV, Sunday morning shows in particular

Ten days ago Ms Short broke the embargo on tax by saying people on her income should pay more. She gave interviews the next day, and the day after, noticeably failing to back off. Her honesty is part of her appeal. Blair must treat her tolerantly because she is needed to keep the party on board. She has called for a debate on legalising cannabis, and said Harriet Harman would have to "answer to her constituents" for her decision to send her son to grammar school. Has a weakness for those Sunday TV programmes that provide the material for Monday's papers.

John Prescott

Danger areas: TV and newspapers

Often lets off steam when the red light on top of the camera goes off - if journalists hear it and it is disloyal enough, it gets into the next day's papers. Last year he accused the leader's aides of "taking the piss" out of him, after an interview in which he was asked about reports of Blair's intention to cut the union block vote further. "That seems to be a reasonable interpretation about a fairer tax system," he said to David Frost on Sunday, when he avoided confirming or denying anyone's interpretation, however reasonable. But he can't do any real damage unless he's prepared to resign, which he isn't.

Harriet Harman

Danger area: the House of Commons corridors

She is in danger of sabotage from her own side having decided to send her son to grammar school. She got away with missing a Commons vote last month on a move to cut VAT on energy-saving materials, which the Government won by one vote. Labour's spin patrol need not worry about what she might say - in the jargon, she's a "disciplined sister". But there's the problem of getting her re-elected to the Shadow Cabinet and of Labour backbenchers taking pot- shots at her because they see her middle-class style and assumptions as a proxy for the leader's.

Roy Hattersley

Danger area: newspapers, when he writes

Revels in his surprising role as spokesman for what he calls the "new left - by which he means mainstream Labour Blair-doubters. His passion for an egalitarian education policy identifies him with the one issue that speaks to the heart of the party's uneasiness with its new leader. At the party conference he roused the left-wing Tribune rally with a call to abolish private schools. Last month, he accused Tony Blair of "flip- flopping" on fundamental beliefs when he commented waspishly that, unlike Blair, he was against Labour's "longest-suicide-note-in-history" policies of 1983 in 1983.

Paul Flynn

Danger area: House of Commons

Mr Flynn, MP for Newport West, introduces a Bill in the Commons tomorrow to abolish the monarchy. It's unfair to single out Mr Flynn, except that he is wittier than most backbench troublemakers. But, like others, he is bound to say publicly what most Labour MPs and Labour Party members think, while Mr Blair tries to persuade the country that a Labour government will do something else. Up to 40 Labour MPs are likely to be significantly out of sympathy with their government - hence Mr Blair's warmth towards the Liberal Democrats.