Magazine article The Spectator

Hilary Armstrong Is the Worst Chief Whip in Memory. That May Not Matter Now - but It Will

Magazine article The Spectator

Hilary Armstrong Is the Worst Chief Whip in Memory. That May Not Matter Now - but It Will

Article excerpt

Dull, commonplace slightly stupid, wholly lacking in wit or imagination, Hilary Armstrong is beyond a shadow of a doubt the worst government chief whip in memory. Her now famous verbal assault on Paul Marsden, a hitherto unknown backbencher, has been widely condemned as an abuse of her position. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the job of a chief whip to terrorise dissident MPs into complying with the wishes of the prime minister of the day.

The problem with Armstrong is that she failed miserably to carry out this elementary function. Rather than leaving his meeting with the chief whip a gibbering wreck, Marsden was emboldened to make contact with the political editor of the Mail on Sunday, to whom he communicated the details of his conversation.

Anybody who takes the trouble to read the transcript which duly appeared in the Sunday papers can only have been struck by the absence of personal authority and the pitiful lack of any kind of intellectual grip. And this should come as no surprise. Immediately after the last election, Tony Blair and his henchman Alastair Campbell indicated to the Labour party at large that they no longer considered the whips' office of real importance in maintaining discipline.

They did this in three ways. They sacked many of the most senior members of the office, such as Jim Dowd and Graham Allen. Previous governments have always used the whips' office as a means of fast-streaming talent: by sacking so many outright, Tony Blair was indicating that he regarded the office as a dead-end job. He replaced them with a collection of lightweights, of whom Armstrong herself, hitherto fully stretched as a local government minister, was the most egregious case in point.

But the most deadly and contemptuous action was the decision to boot the whips' office out of No. 12 Downing Street, the magnificent premises that had been their lair since the 19th century. Alastair Campbell and his communications team were installed instead: the most potent statement imaginable that manipulating the media matters more to Tony Blair than managing Parliament. If anyone now possesses the mystique and authority of Michael Dobbs's fictitious chief whip, Francis Urquhart, it is Campbell and emphatically not the hapless Hilary Armstrong.

The occupation of No. 12 was a flagrant statement that Campbell, his now vanquished coeval Peter Mandelson, and the shadowy collection of men and women that surround them have established a novel system of government. Decisions are made in the dark, without reference to the established civil-service framework, by people who are accountable to nobody, and have nothing but distaste for probity or constitutional doctrine. Cabinet ministers are held in contempt. There was a fresh instance of this disquieting syndrome this week when a Downing Street press officer was authorised to hang the hapless Armstrong out to dry over the Marsden affair.

Jo Moore, whose email calling on civil servants to 'bury' bad news after 11 September, is one of the most highly placed members of the new governing cadre that Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell have imposed on Whitehall since 1997. Her salary tells you everything. Moore, who was Tony Blair's personal press officer in opposition and a member of the New Labour 'family', is reported to be paid E51,000 a year for a two-day week. …

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