Cameron's reshuffle looks like it will be one for the purists within the parliamentary party and the grassroots at large- a reshuffle made up of the Tory right, by the right and for the right. ConservativeHome, a bellwether for the opinion of significant swathes of the party's active members and backbenchers, has called for more voices from the 'Mainstream Right' of the party. The potential demotion of the eminently sensible Ken Clarke- and his replacement with someone more 50 Shades of Grey in their support of rough justice, could exemplify that the dynamics of the coalition, and the Conservative party, shifted within the last parliament.
A more subtle subplot below the slaying of big beasts within the cabinet, and a more obvious reference to the popularisation of S&M imagery, is likely to be the changing face of the whips office. It marks a turning point for the parliamentary purists; and an acknowledgement from Cameron that getting his business through parliament and his own party is as important as stage managing the coalition's short-term popularity. Nicolas Watt of The Guardian quoted a senior government figure's desire last week to 'turn the whips' office back to what it used to be under Margaret Thatcher and John Major'. Although easy to overstate, there has been some disintegration in the prominence of the whips office, as a centre for political activity within Westminster, from the heyday of the 90s.
In the 1990s the key fictional representation of the Machiavellian machinations of Westminster was Francis Urquhart, the devious Chief Whip from House of Cards. Urquhart saw his role as to 'keep the troops in line, put a bit of stick about, make 'em jump'. That his role has been superseded by the effervescent Malcolm Tucker, the government's 'Director of Communications' in Armando Iannucci's The Thick of It. When Tucker is asked if he has seen the latest whips numbers, predicting the number of government MPs voting against their party, he responds 'NOMFuP. N-O-M-F-P. Not My F**king Problem.'
The power of the whips within parliament was on the wane throughout Labour's tenure in office- and general incompetencies garnered through complacency began to bite as majorities shrunk and leadership authority faultered. This can be measured both through tangible and quantifiable measurements of rebellion frequency and strength within the Commons, which increased exponentially. Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart, academic experts on parliamentary behaviour, found that Brown's first full session as Prime Minister saw more parliamentary revolts than Blair's entire first four years in office combined.
The 'mixture of beta-blockers and Prozac' former whip Gyles Brandreth prescribed for Labour's whips office would perhaps not have been enough to help Patrick McLoughlin, Cameron's Chief Whip, forget the misdemeanours of Conservatives in this parliament. The rate of rebellion Brandreth and the Major government suffered was 13 per cent between the 1992 and 1997 general elections. The first seven months of the coalition government saw a rebellion rate of 38 per cent among Conservative MPs- a threefold increase from their time in opposition. The pre-eminent parliamentary scholar Lord Norton cited the loss of 'carrot and sticks' (foregoing E.L. James) as a factor in the lack of loyalty from Conservative MPs, with minimal opportunities for career advancement within a government where job opportunities are shared with their coalition partners.
But a stronger contribution Norton points towards is the ability and number of new Conservative MPs. Their depth in number means that they are less willing to bow to elder members who lived through Conservative governments with a stronger hold over the parliamentary party. Their ability leads to impatience towards spending time idly on the backbenches, and an intellectual curiosity that leads to greater independent thought. Cameron's move, towards promoting and blooding an increased number of promising party figures to the whips office, appears to be a deft short and long term political strategy.
An unprecedented feature of the last parliament was the number of rebellions of new MPs, for example within the largest rebellions on the EU referendum and House of Lords reform. These MPs will be unable to instigate or take part in such rebellions should they be a part of governmental collective responsibility- which could have some short term effect on propensity and velocity of rebellion Traditionally one of the roles of the whips office, particularly within the Tory party, has been to not only spot ministerial talent within the party, but to nurture it within their ranks for the long term. It is for this reason that it has often been labelled the 'human resources department' of the major parties. Senior party figures such as David Willetts, Liam Fox, Andrew Mitchell and David Davis all started their governmental careers within Major's whips office.
The collapse of the ministerial careers of Davis and Fox show the stark influence Cameron's reshuffle will have. Lyndon Johnson once said of J. Edgar Hoover that 'it's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in'. Giving an increased number of new MPs a stake in the coalition government's future looks set to be the wisest feature of this upcoming reshuffle.