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Government whips use the honours system to manage tricky MPs
HONOURS ARE not always honoured. John Hayes, a Eurosceptic Conservative MP, discovered as much when he was awarded a knighthood on November 23rd. Rather than congratulate him, some fellow Tories subjected him to ridicule, suggesting that the title was an inducement to back the government’s unpopular Brexit deal. One fellow Brexiteer, feeling betrayed, had some advice for Sir John regarding his coat of arms: “Could I cheekily suggest a crest with an utter cock rampant on one side and a big chicken on the other.”
In the run-up to Parliament’s vote on the deal on December 11th, government whips are scrambling to win MPs’ support. But whips are less powerful than they used to be. Although the House of Commons is still a wildly unprofessional workplace, threats of physical violence are these days frowned upon. And jobs on influential select committees are no longer the whips’ to give out as rewards for loyalty, instead being distributed by MPs among themselves.
The honours system is one weapon still in their arsenal. The chief whips of both main parties sit on the committee that decides which MPs are to receive gongs, in an arrangement labelled “inappropriate” by the House of Commons’ own Public Administration Select Committee. And they seem to be using the power freely. Whereas during 13 years of Labour government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown only a couple of sitting Labour MPs were made knights or dames, in the eight years since the Conservatives took office at least 35 Tory MPs have received such honours, according to our tally (see chart).
Giving out medals is not the only way in which Downing Street has rolled the pitch. The “informal” payroll vote, which refers to the number of MPs with jobs in the government or party, who are expected to back the prime minister come what may, has ballooned, according to the Institute for Government. It recently hit 173—over half of all Tory MPs—compared with about 130 in the 1990s. This includes nine extra vice-chairmen of the Conservative Party that have been created under Theresa May. It also counts positions such as trade envoys for exotic emerging markets, which are often dished out to loyal backbenchers, despite supposedly being cross-party positions. In 2012 there were eight such emissaries. There are now 32, 18 of whom are Tories.
The honours system makes a mockery of British democracy, argues Willie Sullivan of the Electoral Reform Society. Yet political patronage works only if those being cajoled believe the people in charge will be around long enough to carry out the promised favour, points out one Eurosceptic plotter. Rough estimates suggest that up to 100 Tory MPs could vote against Mrs May’s Brexit deal. If that happens, the prospects for the prime minister will darken. And if her strategy looks doomed she may find that no knights, whether in shining armour or grey suits, will ride to her rescue.