Now Operation “Thumb Screw” – Owl
It is a remarkable feature of the present political landscape that the future governance of Britain rests on the varying, not to say wavering, bravery of Conservative backbenchers. Who, in other words, are they more frightened of? Like unwilling participants in a Westminster version of Squid Game, they are subject to pressures that are as diverse as they are intense, and appear to be in stalemate.
Is it the threats and alleged blackmail coming from special advisers and the party whips? These enforcers stand accused by William Wragg, himself a Tory MP and select committee chair, of bullying Tory MPs into supporting Boris Johnson. Or, depending on their majorities, are these hapless tribunes of their people more anxious about the anger of their electors? Do they stay awake at night worrying about whether their local associations, usually more loyal to the party’s leadership, will back them if they rebel against the prime minister?
Weighing such factors must leave little time for them to consider the wider national interest, or navigate the moral maze of Partygate. Sad to say, when politicians wrestle with their conscience, their conscience usually loses.
“Operation Save Big Dog” might sound cuddly – comical even – but, just like Big Dog himself, it could have a nasty side. As our reporting has revealed, insiders claim they were told to delete their texts and emails and effectively dispose of evidence relating to lockdown parties – advice that may have been unlawful. Downing Street has, however, denied these claims.
No one should be under the illusion that the Commons is some sort of kindergarten and the whips kindly nursery school teachers. Threats and malice are their trade. They maintain black books, and files, and spreadsheets on the private lives of elected members (from which information is occasionally leaked). The Johnson file is probably more extensive than most, ironically. They know where the bodies are buried, because they buried them. In some cases, TV shows such as The Thick of It and House of Cards look more like documentary than fiction.
What is perhaps new in the Johnson operation is the blatant leverage of public expenditure in certain parliamentary constituencies to force MPs to do what they are told. The allocation of regeneration funding, along with the relocation of government offices, to places chosen on the basis of their political significance rather than their merit has been well remarked on. The suspicion is that if some red wall community was wise enough to elect a Conservative MP, or another prosperous area is lucky enough to have a cabinet minister representing them, they have a better chance of the high street being done up, courtesy of the Treasury and the taxpayer.
The threat to withdraw such schemes from recalcitrant Tory backbenchers in marginal seats is another manifestation of the “spoils” system of politics. The intimidation is nothing new, but the novelty is that constituents will suffer because their MP wants to do the right thing. It represents another debasement of public life under this prime minister.
In the end, though, public opinion still matters the most. Defeat in a general election is the ultimate sanction on any MP – the most potent of threats. With hostile, disillusioned, defrauded voters, no MP will remain an MP for long. The signs are that many of the 2019 intake, who admittedly owe their seats to Mr Johnson, will have painfully short careers once the prime minister, having won his election, has no further use for them or the people who live in their constituencies. That may well have been one of the factors in the defection to Labour of the former Tory MP for Bury South, Christian Wakeford.
Even if they stay in the Tory party, Mr Wakeford’s former colleagues must wonder if they might be better off with someone less tainted leading them into the next election.