GETTING locked in the toilet was not the most auspicious start to a new job, but then again it had been one of those weeks for the new chief whip, Michael Gove.
While Mr Gove was probably not heartbroken to have missed business questions in the House. He may still be smarting from the £36,000 pay cut he suffered at the beginning of the week when he was shown the door at the Department for Education by David Cameron.
On the face of it, Mr Gove’s move to the chief whip’s office, responsible for party discipline with an added campaign brief as the “minister for television” did look like a demotion, although this was fiercely denied by both Messrs Gove and Cameron. And, despite the loss of a department and a chunk of salary, they may actually mean what they say.
The problem is that today’s perspective of the role of the chief whip is somewhat downgraded largely thanks to Tony Blair and his legacy.
Until Blair, the chief whip was a senior member of the government and resident in Downing Street. It says a lot about the Blair era, when party discipline was not such a concern, that 12 Downing Street was turned into a press office.
But there was no doubt that John Major’s chief whip, Richard (now Lord) Ryder, was part of the inner circle and a senior member of the government. Another former chief whip, Ted Heath, went on from that post to become Tory leader and prime minister. Perhaps the most famous chief whip to do that is the fictional Francis Urquhart, who used his position to blackmail his way to the top. So perhaps this is not a sign of the beginning of the end of Mr Gove’s career.
The position – which has the official title of Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury – was created in 1830 and held by Thomas Spring Rice, 1st Baron Monteagle of Brandon. The role is to make sure that MPs vote when and how they are told to, and don’t misbehave. Most importantly, the chief whip is responsible for preventing rebellions by whatever means necessary – in other words threats, blackmail, offers of promotion, ministerial visits and so forth.
As Prime Minister, Mr Cameron has arguably until now not been tough enough. Sir George Young and Patrick McLoughlin’s relatively gentle conciliatory approaches have not prevented a string of humiliating defeats and rebellions over Europe, gay marriage and, worst of all, military intervention in Syria.
After the Syria defeat, Mr Gove publicly berated rebels as they left the Chamber, and maybe Mr Cameron has decided that he needs a tough operator in the post to reimpose party discipline.