This article is from the November issue of Total Politics
I first met Patrick McLoughlin more than 20 years ago. He was a transport minister, I was a lobbyist. Neither of us imagined he would end up as chief whip and become the first holder of the post to give an interview. In a coalition, there’s no manual for a chief whip to learn the job from. He’s writing it himself.
ID: Your background isn’t conventional. Everyone thinks of Eric Pickles as David Cameron’s bit of northern rough – are you number two in the pecking order, then?
PM: I’m not sure I’m in any pecking order. My father was a miner. He died when I was seven. I never knew him at all really. My mother worked in a factory and brought the family up after my dad died. So it was a fairly tough upbringing.
You’ve never made a lot of that publicly. Some politicians do, particularly when they had an upbringing that was a bit different from the norm.
If people ask me about it, it’s not something I’ve hidden. The role of chief whip is not necessarily high profile. But my 1983 general election poster [right], which I’m very proud of, doesn’t hide what I was. Far from it.
How long were you a miner?
About six years in total, five underground. I started in February 1979, and I worked at Littleton Colliery until September 1985. Then I went to work for the marking section, and then, of course, I fought the by-election in 1986, which got me elected. It was the same pit that my Dad worked at when he was alive. It was quite interesting because some of the older guys knew him, and they’d say, “God, your Dad would be turning in his grave.” The interesting thing about being a mine worker was that the attitude changed – I didn’t hide my politics. I was a district councillor, and then became a county councillor, so everybody knew I was a Tory. But once I’d stood for Parliament after 1983 – though the seat I stood for, Wolverhampton South East, was a very safe Labour seat – people took me a lot more seriously.
There are so many people that come into politics nowadays having done nothing outside the political world. What different perspective does that background give you?
You’ve always got where you came from, but I was a miner for six years and I’ve been a member of Parliament for 25 years. The idea that it somehow still colours what I do – it is part of how I developed. I know about the miners’ strike because I was part of it, but it’s not something that changes you every day.
When I first knew you, you were transport minister. How many years did you do that for?
Three years. 1989–92.
What did you do then?
I moved to the Department of Employment, and then went to Trade and Industry. Then I was sort of given a sabbatical for a year by the PM.
See how many people you can use that experience on in the next year, maybe!
I have used it quite a few times. I was sacked from the government by John Major in 1994 and then brought back as a whip in 1995, so I’ve been in the whips’ office ever since. I’ve seen the party through some interesting occasions.
I hope you’ve kept a diary...
You were a minister for a number of years, then in the whips’ office since, and chief whip since the election – what’s the difference between being a junior minister and being in the whips’ office? Which have you got the most out of?
They’re completely different challenges. And I learnt more about the parliamentary party in six weeks at the whips’ office than I had in five years as a junior minister, because you see the party from a completely different angle.
People ask, what is the job of the chief whip? I mean, it’s everything. It’s trying to make sure that colleagues are content, that they know where they’re going. Obviously, the chief whip and the whips’ office are more concerned with what’s going on in Westminster than what happens in their constituency. So we only see one side of what an MP does – sometimes we might be saying in Westminster that he or she’s facing problems, whereas in their constituency they’re doing fantastically. So it’s that balance.
We are the human resources department of the parliamentary party, and we’re not just looking at manning up committees, winning votes, feeding back information to the prime minister and other senior ministers about what colleagues are saying and what they want. They’ve all got their networks. We’re all part of feeding into that, and an important part of it.
As a minister, you’re interested in what’s going on in your department and the specific subjects you’re looking after. You’re not really interested in the broader picture of what’s happening in parliamentary time. You know, if you’re a minister and you’ve got a bill, you’re very concerned about getting that through. As a chief whip, you’re concerned about getting the government’s legislative programme through, not just one bill. So there’s quite a huge difference.
Is it easy for ministers – particularly junior ministers – to go native in their departments? I’ve detected that with one or two people already, even after only 16 months. People who were very successful in opposition, were very keen to do things, now are just driven by what they’re doing in their departments. Do you think that’s a danger?
It’s a danger, but there’s also the inevitability of it. When I first became a minister I was summoned to see the PM [Margaret Thatcher] at Downing Street. I arrived at Downing Street and went to see the police officer, and he said: “What do you want sir?”
“I want to see the PM.”
“So do a lot of people, sir.”
He looked on his list and I wasn’t down there. And I thought: “Some bugger’s pulled a bloody trick on me.”
Eventually I’m let through, and this was the reshuffle where Geoffrey Howe was moved from the Foreign Office to leader of the House. There’s all the press outside, and I have to walk down calmly and not give any sort of indication. I went to see the PM and she said: “Patrick, this is one of the more interesting, easier sides of a reshuffle where I can ask people to join the government for the first time. I’d like you to go to the Department of Transport and do roads with Cecil Parkinson.”
And I said: “That’s fantastic. But actually, there’s just one problem with this, prime minister…” She looked, and for a few seconds you could see this horror.
”… My wife’s going to have our second child on the 16 August.” She said: “The 16 August? It doesn’t happen that way, Patrick.” I replied: “Well, actually, this time it will; it’s a planned caesarean.”
So off I go to transport, into the roads minister’s room and I bump into Cecil Parkinson. Cecil says: “We may change the responsibilities. I’m going to have lunch with Michael Portillo and we’ll talk about it when we come back.” Later, he gets us all together – myself, Robert Atkins, Michael Portillo. And he says: “Patrick, I want you to do aviation and shipping, and Robert, I want you to do roads.” I replied: “Cecil, I’ve got two problems with this. I’ve got the most landlocked constituency in the United Kingdom, and I’m afraid of flying.” “Excellent,” he said, “you’ll bring an open mind to the subject.”
There are 2010 intake MPs who have been fairly successful in other areas before Parliament. They’ve found it quite difficult to adjust to the fact that they haven’t actually got any power. They can’t make decisions apart from within their own office.
Yes, that’s true. And the volume of constituency work has taken a few people by surprise, as well. But politics is very rewarding. Although sometimes they’ll find it frustrating, there’ll be a constituency case that they manage to solve that they’ll find incredibly rewarding.
Perhaps we’ve got this view that being an MP is about securing the government. It isn’t. It’s about checking the government. It’s about questioning the legislature. Some of them in due course will get their chance to be part of the executive. I think they might find that more rewarding. If you run a big organisation and all of a sudden you become an MP on the bottom rung – yeah, it’s a shock to the culture system.
Is the ‘awkward squad’ now very different to what it was in the 1980s or 1990s?
The awkward squad is made up of those that sometimes are fulfilling their legitimate jobs as parliamentarians and holding the executive to account, and sometimes… I’m relaxed about people doing what they’re supposed to do, be it on select committees, being in the committee stage in the House, as that’s sometimes what they’re there to do. They’re not there to make my life easy, and I don’t expect them to.
But, presumably, if someone comes to you and says, ‘Patrick, this is a subject I really care about, I can’t support the government on this’, that’s very different to somebody who then just walks through the division lobby without even telling you that they’re going to do it?
Colleagues should let the whips’ office know, because we shouldn’t be taken by surprise with what’s going on – that’s one of the things we say to colleagues: let us know, and if you’ve got a particular problem… It depends what the issue is – we’re dealing with a coalition. I’m the first coalition chief whip for a great many years. The rules are all a bit new, so some of them are developing.
A lot of people ask how we work the coalition whips’ office. So far, I think we’ve worked it quite well. I’m the chief whip. Alistair Carmichael is chief whip of the Liberal Party and deputy chief whip in the government along with John Randall. It’s worked quite well.
How does it work, though? Do you have a meeting of all the whips together?
Well, every day, 30 minutes before the start of the day’s business, the whip’s office meets. What used to happen when I was last in the whip’s office was that the first 15 minutes of the meeting would be taken by the deputy chief whip, and you’d talk about the day’s business. Then the chief whip would come in and you’d talk about other business – party business, colleagues etc.
We’ve reversed that process now. So, for the first 15 minutes of the meeting the Conservatives meet by themselves – I presume the Liberals meet first to talk about the day, then come into our meeting and we talk about the day’s business, what votes are going to take place, who’s telling and so on. So that’s how we’ve changed it. And Alistair and I talk regularly on other occasions if we need to.
But, use the Health Bill as an example – do you have little chats with Alistair, and say, ‘Come on, mate, get your troops in line on this one’?
I don’t need to. Alistair is a superb deputy chief whip. He knows what his responsibilities are. We work together. It’s seamless, to be honest. And even on the issue that probably caused the Liberals the biggest amount of trouble – tuition fees – Alistair and I were working together, making sure the government won its business.
Reshuffles – as you said before, you’ve been through a few in your time. It’s very difficult to get them right, isn’t it? You’re inevitably going to disappoint a lot of people. How do you square that circle?
It’s going to be very difficult whenever it comes, because there’s no easy way of doing it. What we’ve got to hope is that people realise that there’ll obviously be some changes – the PM hasn’t discussed the reshuffles with me yet. One of the things about David Cameron is that he’s not big on doing lots of reshuffles.
Obviously you haven’t done a reshuffle in government, but how does it generally work? In Margaret Thatcher’s day – and to an extent in John Major’s – the whips’ office really allocated all of the junior positions. Is that likely to continue?
When we do one, I’ll let you know.
But I was asking you to say how it worked in the past…
In the past, we were 205 MPs and we had a front bench of about 95. So a lot of those who wanted to be were accommodated. Some people want to do select committee work, and further work in that category, so it’s going to be different this time. As I say, we haven’t got so many posts. So, when we’ve done a reshuffle I’ll let you know what the process is. What I can tell you is that the PM has very clear views on these matters.
When you were chief whip in opposition, clearly you must have thought, ‘All other things being equal, I will be chief whip in government.’ How did you prepare for that?
I talked to previous chief whips, but for all the preparation you do, until you become chief whip, you do the job to your ability. And so much has changed. I remember not so very long ago having dinner with Michael Jopling, and he said that they used to sort the select committees out. I said that I didn’t have that power any more.
You can’t order people to do things; you have to explain a bit more. And that’s not a bad thing. We did the party review – something the whips occasionally do – and a number of people said they’d love to come into the whips’ office. I think we had about 30 applications. The collegiate effect of the whips’ office is what makes it one of the great places to be in Parliament. Departmental ministers do not get the collegiality that the whips’ office gets.
Is it still true that a whip can blackball a new entrant?
Not really. It’s never really happened, and we don’t work that way anymore.
What’s the part of the job that you’ve either found most difficult or don’t like?
Having to talk to colleagues who’ve got themselves into trouble, sometimes through their own stupidity or fault – it’s not very pleasant. That can be one of the more difficult sides of the job.
How do you get used to that, because confronting someone about either their financial problems or sexual activities or whatever… the five minutes before they enter the room, you must think, ‘Jesus, how am I going to do this?’
The first thing is that they’ve got to understand that anything that’s said in the chief whip’s office is said in the chief whip’s office. It’s not for further use outside. And they’ve got to realise that I and the office are there to try and help colleagues at all times. Some people make that a bit more difficult than it should be, but we’re there, basically, to try and help. What I say to all members is that you can get over these problems most of the time. You can get through it, you can sort it out. We can work through, providing both sides are open with each other about the consequences. And, in fairness, we haven’t had too many instances like that since we’ve been in government.
Are there people who just won’t be helped?
I’ve not come across that for some time. I did a bit when I was opposition chief whip, but a lot of those people have either not stood or gone. There were some that we had to take fairly tough action with, and it wasn’t pleasant. But as I say, we’re mainly there to help them.
A lot of new MPs feel that they don’t really have as much influence as they thought they might, certainly in amending legislation. If you look at the number of amendments to legislation tabled in the House of Commons that actually get accepted, they’re minimal compared to the House of Lords. Is there any way that that can be changed, or is it vital for the executive to retain this grip and control?
I’m not sure it’s ‘grip and control’. Let’s talk about what we’ve done to give backbenchers more power. We now elect all select committees, elected from the parliamentary party. It’s no longer the whips who appoint people. We elect select committee chairmen from the whole House – a very important change. We’ve created backbench business days where colleagues can put down substantive motions for debate. There’s been a massive amount of change in the role of the backbenchers. Now, in a way, people are still coming to terms with some of the consequences of that. Government’s had to as well. So there’s been a massive shift in the way that the parliamentary week, is assembled. That’s been very good.
Regarding legislation, we do listen, but it goes through the cabinet, through the cabinet committees. Some issues are still allowed to be free-vote issues. But, otherwise, the government needs to get its legislation [through], because although somebody might want to do something that changes it a bit, it may have an impact in another department that may be against government policy.
The other thing I do strongly point out is that all MPs who take the Conservative whip are elected as Conservative MPs. If they want to be independents, there’s nothing to stop them being so, and they can fight an election as independents. Actually, independents don’t have a very strong track record. So, at a general election each MP has a responsibility to the party whose banner they stand under to get elected, and that’s a fair point to remind them about occasionally.
And do you do that more than occasionally?
I think people know my views on this particular matter without me having to remind them.
I think we all know your views on Speaker Bercow as well. Do you regret your little contretemps with him?
I don’t think I’ve ever expressed any views on the Speaker.
Well, you had a bit of a shouting match with him in the chamber, where we got the hint that you might not…
I’m not sure there was much shouting from me, if one plays it back…
The look on your face said a lot.
These things happen in Parliament. It all adds to the gaiety and the colour of the parliamentary process.
The Boundary Commission is going to cause you the biggest headache of all, isn’t it? You’re going to have people wanting to fight each other for selection in different seats because of the reduction in numbers.
What we’re doing is absolutely right. There’s no question in my view, and you talk to any Conservative MP… Yes, you should reduce the size of the House of Commons. Yes, each constituency should be equalised. We start from the basis that what we’re doing is right.
There’ll be some discomfort while we get it all sorted out. And I suppose my one sorrow is that we’re still another 12 months away from knowing what the Boundary Commission is going to come out with next time, perhaps as a more final set of proposals. Is it the right thing to do? Yes. Is it right that every constituency should be roughly the same size? Of course.
You’ve been in the whips’ office for a long time. Do you have any remaining ambitions in politics, or is this going to be your last job?
Oh, who knows? The one thing nobody knows in politics is what’s going to happen to them next.
If the chief whip doesn’t know, who can know, I suppose?
The prime minister.