Magazine article The Spectator

Whipping Up Dissent

Magazine article The Spectator

Whipping Up Dissent

Article excerpt

MUCH is being made of the frenzied excitability of Labour backbenchers. Monday's vaunted House of Commons roasting of Harriet Harman may not have materialised, but beware the vote on the social security Bill next week: new government, new rebels, Labour grassroots in tumult and so on. In reality, this is not a very perceptive analysis. True, large numbers of foot-soldiers have been signing critical Commons motions and private letters to the Chancellor with unusual abandon, but a single Roger Berry - the Tribunite backbencher who last weekend threatened the government with disaster if they continued to ignore him - does not a Tory summer make. Indeed, a dozen Roger Berries, even supplemented by a handful of Alice Mahons, Audrey Wises and other left-wing public critics of the Labour government, still do not amount to very much at all. The real story is in the government whips' office.

One reason that Labour backbenchers have, lemming-like, got it into their heads that it is suddenly acceptable directly and publicly to challenge the government is that the deputy chief whip, George Mudie, has been telling them so. The phrase used by one of his colleagues, `organising against the government', may be a shade over-emphatic, but that is essentially what he has been doing: telling any Labour MP who would listen that the plans must be abandoned and that protest, indeed disobedience, is not only legitimate but admirable.

From the outset, Mr Mudie has been convinced that Labour's plan to scrap lone parent benefits is so wrong that it must be ditched. Fair enough. What is bizarre is that he has mounted a personal crusade to make this happen, not apparently seeing the contradiction inherent in taking on such a project while being government deputy chief whip. As late as last week - after the policy had been officially rubber-stamped in Cabinet and the Prime Minister had defended it in the media - Mr Mudie was still letting it be known that the plans must by changed. He has been heard to mutter darkly, 'I am going to talk to Gordon', and he has tried to make representations to No. 10. He does not seem to have registered that the policy is immutable, or, if it is not, it certainly should be by now, however wrong it was in the first place.

Mr Mudie is a genial, formerly popular Northerner who did well, having only come into Parliament in 1992, to become government deputy chief whip only five years later. It can be an important job. It was at its acme in the Thatcher years, having been refined almost to invisibility by that master of the black arts, Tristan Garel-Jones. Mr Mudie, a traditional Labour right-winger and protege of Dr Jack Cunningham, might have had a reasonably senior ministerial future were it not for his strange behaviour of the last few weeks.

As things stand, Mr Garel-Jones must be spinning in his realpolitikal sarcophagus: Mr Mudie is the hero of the naive on the back benches, and the enemy of the government of which he is a part. The social security whip, Kevin Hughes, whose responsibility it will be to get Labour members through the lobbies in favour of scrapping lone parent benefits on 10 December, is understandably furious. An NUM-sponsored former coalminer in an age when most Labour MPs have never even met one, I am sure Mr Hughes is as unhappy with the policy as are all right-thinking people. It is a sadistic and unnecessary mistake, unworthy even of Peter Lilley, to cut benefits to lone parents in this way. But it is now the policy of the government, and Mr Hughes, having made the crucial connection between that and being a government whip, has set aside his own views and got on with selling the policy to the troops. …

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