Among those chuckling quietly a week ago was Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment - one of five Cabinet ministers named in the Daily Telegraph on Friday as having complained to the Chief Whip, Alastair Goodlad, about Dr Mawhinney's behaviour.
The detail of the story (denied by all concerned) seemed implausible in the extreme. It is difficult to imagine a delegation of Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, Douglas Hogg, the Minister for Agriculture, Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for National Heritage, Tony Newton, the Leader of the House, and Mrs Shephard visiting - or even writing - to Mr Goodlad. But, as one well-placed Tory put it, that is not really the point; "even if the actual event never took place that does not mean that the component strains are untrue". There is no denying the strains between Conservative Central Office under Dr Mawhinney and some of his most senior colleagues.
Those close to Mr Hogg, Mrs Shephard and Mrs Bottomley make little secret of the view that their position has been undermined by Conservative Central Office briefings. Allies of the chairman are unabashed: "So what? He's ruffling some feathers but that is not only inevitable, it's desirable. He's politicised a rather tame institution. If he wasn't doing this he would be failing in his duties. Don't forget: a nice party chairman is not a good party chairman."
Conservative Party chairmen can generally be divided into two groups: the emollient tendency, usually in post after a general election when the job is relatively low profile (for example Peter Brooke or Sir Norman Fowler), and the more Rottweiler types who front general election campaigns (Norman Tebbit or Cecil Parkinson). Even Chris Patten, regarded as a media- friendly "wet", was forced to toughen his rhetoric as party chairman in the run-up to the 1992 general election. Dr Mawhinney, a no-nonsense Ulsterman, falls into the latter camp. As one Conservative source put it: "Mawhinney can't see a groin without wanting to put a knee in it - even, sometimes, when the groin belongs to someone on our side."
Fans argue correctly that, behind the scenes, the party chairman has had considerable success in revitalising Central Office's moribund machinery. The press operation has been upgraded; the appointment of a new director of research, Danny Finkelstein, has been well received, and the massive deficit has been cut back. Even one leftish Conservative MP (who denounced Central Office as a "nest of vipers" and its chairman as a "brute") conceded that weekly bulletins for MPs are vastly improved. One Mawhinney ally argues: "Central Office now has focus, direction and clear strategy and good rebuttal." Management of this year's Conservative Party conference must also be counted a Mawhinney success.
That, however, may only have exacerbated tensions. One ministerial source argued: "Central Office is now sufficiently co-ordinated that if it goes off in an overtly political direction it can do so at high speed." As an election approaches, power shifts gradually from government to Central Office. So do demands on ministers' time. Dr Mawhinney (current catchphrase: "What have you done today to help us win the election?") has clashed with ministers over priorities: on occasion he has argued that they should spend rather less time at meetings discussing obscure draft regulations, and more time campaigning against Labour.
One ex-minister said: "This was a story waiting to happen. Mawhinney sees himself as chief of staff of government. It's not surprising he wants to throw his weight around with junior members of the Cabinet."
Specific issues, too, have caused friction. Europe provoked the clash with Mr Clarke where the two men were on different sides over a referendum earlier this year (although both sides now say this tension has been resolved). Mrs Shephardhas had an up and down relationship with Dr Mawhinney, coming in for criticism over her reluctance to push selection in education. Mr Hogg's handling of the beef crisis was viewed with alarm in Central Office.
The party chairman has, however, left himself open to criticism over his own media handling, and his personal relationship with colleagues. His fronting of a press conference which produced a spoof of a Labour document, "The Road to Ruin", was embarrassing. Then on one edition of the BBC's Question Time, his answer on caning was extraordinarily inarticulate.
On the media his Ulster accent comes across as harsh and aggressive. Even in private this can be the impression. One critic argued: "He does not do himself any favours by his abrasive manner. That is just a matter of the person - it is not a matter of an agenda."
More worryingly for the Tories is the convincing theory that last week's stories reflect "blame displacement" within Tory ranks. Central Office is frustrated that internal improvements are not reflected in the polls and blames colleagues seen to be underperforming. They, in turn, retaliate, blaming the chairman. The result? The public sees a divided party bickering, and is even less inclined to vote for it.Reuse content