Whips want to gag us, but I will NOT be silenced says former Tory party whip MICHAEL FABRICANT
Having spent seven years in the Conservative Whips Office ? in Opposition and in Government ? there isn’t much I don’t know about the political dark arts.
So I could not suppress a wry smile a few days ago when I saw that a well-known Eurosceptic Conservative MP had suddenly had a Damascene conversion and discovered a passionate enthusiasm for Brussels.
The MP has not always been flavour of the month with No 10 ? and some would say for good cause ? and as a result has received few of the perks that come with Downing Street patronage: from ministerial jobs to places on prestigious committees, and perhaps the occasional overseas ‘fact-finding’ trip to an exotic destination.
I have no way of knowing what, if anything, took place to result in this MP’s about-turn from an anti-European to rabid pro-European. But it bears all the hallmarks of a successful ‘Whips Operation’.
They would have gone through their lists identifying the failed, the ambitious, and the bitter MPs who might be open to persuasion. And sure enough, a few days later, as if by magic, the MPs in question declare that as lifelong ‘Out’ supporters, they have decided the PM has done so well that we must stay ‘In’.
My fear is that the tactics used by Downing Street to try to force Conservative MPs to support the PM may backfire. It is already leading to friction between Tory MPs who had believed, perhaps naively, that they would be free to follow their conscience on an issue concerning the nation’s destiny.
Apparently not. I am sure Chief Whip Mark Harper is only following orders. But using the Whips in this way runs the risk of building up bad blood.
The party learned the hard way during the revolt over the Maastricht Treaty how the electorate punishes parties that are split over Europe. If the Whips and Downing Street overplay their hand in the coming referendum, there is a real risk of meltdown.
We cannot allow that to happen again. That is why Eurosceptic MPs like me were respectful to David Cameron when we questioned him about the deal with Brussels, even though the deal was weak. We recognise that it is vital that the day after the referendum we can forget our differences.
But at the moment, Ministers who support the ‘In’ campaign can speak up loudly, while those who support the ‘Out’ campaign are told to belt up.
A senior Eurosceptic Minister caused a surprise last week by announcing they would support the PM. Did someone whisper in their ear: ‘Remember the price Michael Heseltine paid for being disloyal to Lady T?’ All Ministers must be true to themselves ? not merely be careerists.
I, for one, will not be silenced.