The best Whip the Tories – and Lib Dems – have had

Dropped as junior minister by John Major, Patrick McLoughlin is now a vital member of the coalition. Michael Brown examines his unique rise
Click to follow
Indy Politics

In the summer of 1994 John Major reshuffled his government. A little-known junior industry minister – a former coal miner – was unceremoniously dismissed and consigned to the Tory backbenches. His only consolation was a handwritten letter of commiseration sent by Michael Howard, the then-Home Secretary: "Politics is a very rough business – and none of us know what's in store from one moment to the next; but you have a great contribution to make."

Sixteen years later, this sacked minister moved into the huge, oak-panelled Government Chief Whip's office at No 9 Downing Street, and sat at his new desk – first used by William Gladstone in 1852, and then by every subsequent Prime Minister until 1916.

The Right Honourable Patrick McLoughlin MP now has the task of maintaining the unity of the coalition Government. After the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and the Chancellor George Osborne, Mr McLoughlin is probably the next-most influential member of the new Government.

His colleagues may be from public school and born to rule but his rise from a Staffordshire coal mine to the corridors of Downing Street is Boys' Own stuff. Not only is he in charge of 307 Tory MPs – 147 of whom are new boys and girls – he must ensure discpline among the 57 Liberal Democrat MPs, who are also marshalled by the coalition's deputy chief whip, the Liberal Democrats' Alistair Carmichael.

If backbenchers, new and old alike, were shocked by the Tory leadership's recent abortive coup d'état attempt against the 1922 Committee, Mr McCloughlin is emollient in his regard for the role of "difficult" backbenchers. Sitting in his office at No 9 with The Independent, he says, rather diplomatically: "We have some interesting characters whose views I respect."

Asked whether the unsuccessful move to try to allow ministers to vote in the 1922 Committee elections was his or Mr Cameron's idea, McLoughlin's evasive response is pure Francis Uquart, the imaginary chief whip of House of Cards fame: "Conversations between me and the Prime Minister are always private."

One of his predecessors during the Thatcher era said: "There are two kinds of chief whip: one who does what the prime minister asks; the other who stops the prime minister from doing what she asks." Which is he? "Both", he insists forcefully.

That makes me question if he was happy with the leadership's failed battle over the 1922 Committee. If he did have reservations, he falls back on Mr Cameron's rhetoric that "the party must work together".

Maybe this was the first case of the Chief Whip preventing the Prime Minister from doing what he asked.

He is Delphic as he points out that "even Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's governments occasionally lost votes and yet the political world carried on" – which makes one wonder whether he has already warned Mr Cameron of difficulties ahead.

He breaks all records as both the longest-serving whip and chief whip in any party in modern times.

The new Government's majority will not be in danger provided there are no rebellions and the Liberal Democrats learn to turn up for every single division. But it is not just a numbers game that will occupy Mr McLoughlin's every waking moment. He also has responsibility for massaging the bruised egos of Tory MPs who failed to become ministers thanks to the coalition arrangements that saw 20 ministerial red boxes doled out to Liberal Democrat. So far, 37 Tory MPs who served in some capacity on the opposition front-bench, prior to the election, have failed to land the ministerial salary and perks they expected. And Mr McLoughlin has also had considerable influence over many of the new junior appointments which have now left many grumpy backbenchers with too much time on their hands – a recipe for potential rebellion and insurrection down the track.

In the event of backbench truculence, his outward default demeanour is of calm reassurance and sympathetic understanding. Bullying and threats are not his style – but he has more than a dozen other Tory whips, some more intimidating, should the more questionable of the profession's black arts be required. He swats away reports that new MPs are far from celebratory because of the discontent at how easily Mr Cameron dropped key Tory manifesto pledges. "I don't recognise that."

His own disappointment 16 years ago will be crucial in maintaining party morale when the going gets rough. As future Cameron reshuffles pile up sacked ministers on the backbenches, Mr McLoughlin will be able to hold up his resurrection as an example to the disaffected to stay onside.

Still only 52, Mr McLoughlin has already served nearly a quarter of a century as MP for Derbyshire Dales (formerly West Derbyshire). Elected in 1986 in a by-election when Matthew Parris upped sticks to become a TV presenter, he scraped home with a majority of 100 ("99 more than I needed") over the Liberals.

His arrival in the Commons aged 29 was a sensation for the Tories. The industrial relations wounds from the year-long 1984-85 miners' strike were raw. He worked underground throughout the strike, having become a miner in 1979 at the Littlejohn Colliery near Cannock. His father, also a miner, died of lung cancer when Patrick was seven. The youngest of three children, he was educated at the Roman Catholic Cardinal Griffin comprehensive school in Cannock. He became a Tory on a school trip to London when his local MP, the recently retired Sir Patrick Cormack, took the group around Parliament. Leaving school at 16 he worked in catering and then in farming before becoming a miner at 21.

His mother worked at the local Ever Ready electical factory. She lived to see him in the Commons. Noticing Mrs McLoughlin in the public gallery to witness the event, Mrs Thatcher asked the new MP to bring his mother to tea in the Prime Minister's Commons office. He was dumbstruck as the women "gossiped the afternoon away like fishwives".

Having caught Mrs Thatcher's eye, this trophy Tory soon climbed the junior ministerial ranks. Between 1989 and his dismissal in 1994, he moved between transport, employment and industry. He was a solid if unspectacular performer who plodded dutifully through late-night adjournment debates and committee stages of legislation which is the lot of junior ministers.

But then, aged 37, he was sacked, and faced the prospect of 30 years or so on the backbenches. Though he behaved impeccably, he was deeply hurt that John Major, himself from the wrong side of the Tory tracks, should have singled him out for dismissal.

But in a twist of fate, the whips unanimously invited him to join them in 1995. Two years later, with the Tory ranks decimated by defeat, Mr McLoughlin found himself third in seniority, becoming deputy a year later. Leaders came and went – Major, Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard – so that by the time David Cameron arrived in 2005, he was the only logical choice for the chief whip.

Since then he has defused rows and restored parliamentary discipline while avoiding the limelight, making few enemies and rarely losing control of his even temperament. The new Tory MP for South Staffordshire, Gavin Williamson, says McLoughlin "is very clear about what he wants and not to be messed with but he is incredibly nice and listens". Edward Leigh, outgoing chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and a Thatcherite, calls him "the best chief whip we've ever had".

For the past year it has fallen to McLoughlin to make the dreaded phone calls on behalf of Mr Cameron, to administer the black spot to those MPs whose expenses claims made their candidacies at the recent election impossible. After this experience his colleagues reckon the next five years should be easy by comparison.

Patrick McLoughlin's resume

Age 52

Education Cardinal Griffin Comprehensive, Cannock (left without any academic qualifications); Staffordshire Agricultural College.

Family Married, with one son and one daughter

1974 Farm worker

1979 Miner, Littleton Colliery, Cannock

1985 Marketing official, the National Coal Board

1986 Won West Derbyshire parliamentary by-election

1989 Minister for Aviation and Shipping

1992 Junior Employment Minister

1993 Junior Trade and Industry Minister

1994 Dismissed from government

1995 Returns to government as a Whip

1997 Opposition whip

1998 Deputy Tory Chief Whip

2005 Tory Chief Whip

2010 Government Chief Whip

He says "Sitting back on the Government side of the House certainly did feel very different. In fact it felt good."

They say "He is very clear about what he wants and is not to be messed with but he is incredibly nice and listens." Gavin Williamson, MP for South Staffordshire

Comments