Michael Brown: Bring back the politics of the pork barrel

I told her I would be sacked if I could not persuade her to vote for the Government

Mr Blair's first task is to recognise that his whips' office should now be more important than any department of state and should be staffed with the best and brightest of his ministerial team. Short of abolishing the House of Commons - last tried unsuccessfully by Charles I - Mr Blair has to live with his backbenchers and with the majority he secured at the general election.

The majorities Labour secured in 1997 and 2001 meant that the standing of government whips has been irrelevant to the Prime Minister. The symbolic ejection, in the first term, of the Chief Whip and her staff from 12 Downing Street by Alastair Campbell, for the use of his spin machine, indicated that power and authority was being enforced by processes other than in the whips' office.

Part of the present problem also results from Mr Blair's decision to pre-announce his departure. Hilary Armstrong's own authority as the Chief Whip derives solely from that of Mr Blair. Once he is no longer feared - or respected - by backbenchers, her authority is fatally undermined.

Whether Ms Armstrong knew, in advance, that she could not deliver the vote is not known. And whether she communicated this information, beforehand, to the Prime Minister is also unknown. John Major would usually refuse to put business before Parliament if he was told he would lose. And so would Mrs Thatcher. Both also at least used to attend controversial debates - I did not see Mr Blair on the front bench once during Wednesday's debate. Meanwhile, government whips were charging round the Commons like madmen, swearing and shouting at Labour MPs in public. This is a sign of panic which means they think they are going to lose.

Once backbenchers see such body language, the Government is on the run. I was always told by Mr Major's chief whip, Richard (now Lord) Ryder, to smile, walk slowly and always look calm. As a whip during the Maastricht debates, I usually found that a bottle of champagne and a good lunch at the Reform Club was far more likely to cajole a difficult colleague into the lobbies than grabbing him by the lapels, swearing at him and kneeing him in the groin.

On one occasion, I went to see Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (as fearsome as her name suggests) and told her I thought I was going to be sacked if I could not persuade her to vote for the Government. She felt so sorry for me that I got her into the government lobby. She in turn was rewarded, at my own expense, with a bouquet of red roses - she represented Lancaster. It was bribery at its most honourable. In those days, it cost me more to be a whip than was covered by my salary.

Tony Blair broke the first law of whipping after Charles Clarke signalled an implicit government climbdown, over a week ago, with the promise to seek a consensus among Labour MPs and other political parties. At his press conference on Monday, Mr Blair appeared to renege on this and to overrule the Home Secretary. Backbench MPs would have regarded this as a breach of trust.

But Hilary Armstrong also missed some tricks this week. As Northern Ireland whip during the early 1990s, I made it my business to attempt to do deals with the Ulster parties. It was crass in the extreme to publish a Bill giving an amnesty to former IRA terrorists on the day of the Labour rebellion. This would have been the week, instead, for old-fashioned pork barrel politics involving Dr Ian Paisley (especially since his wife has just secured a peerage). Enoch Powell once told me that Michael Foot and Jim Callaghan in the 1970s delivered more for Ulster Unionists than any Tory government ever did.

Dr Richard Taylor, the independent doctor who won Wyre Forest in 2001 was in the opposition lobby. In my day, he would have had the offer of new hospitals, bypasses and primary schools rolled out on a red carpet. MPs and whips need to re-learn the old lessons of deals and knighthoods that kept the minority governments of Callaghan and Major in office for nearly their full terms.

Mr Blair will not last long if he fails to understand Parliament now matters again and Ms Armstrong must tell him the politics of the pork barrel and the arm round the shoulder, rather than round the throat, are the only ways to cope with a reduced majority.

mrbrown@talktalk.net

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