THE BLOG
27/02/2015 10:16 GMT | Updated 29/04/2015 06:59 BST

The Botched Suspension of Malcolm Rifkind: Is Michael Gove Up To the Task of Chief Whip?

In his July 2014 Cabinet reshuffle, David Cameron moved the then education secretary Michael Gove to the office of chief whip. Gove had become a toxic talisman in education, who Nick Clegg claimed brought a "divide-and-rule approach to teaching."

Gove's new role would see him in charge of counting, whipping and enforcing votes in the house to ensure the government's legislative agenda passed through the Commons smoothly.

Gove's departure from education has removed much of the controversy surrounding his education reforms. But his tenure as chief whip has overseen the Coalition's first defeat in the Commons, two defections to Ukip and open rebellion.

As the cash-for-access story on Straw and Rifkind broke on Monday morning, the former Labour foreign secretary had already moved to suspend himself from the party the night before. As speculation gathered on whether Conservative MP Malcolm Rifkind would follow suit, Ed Miliband had already challenged the Prime Minister to support restrictions on secondary incomes for MPs.

Inevitably, press focus stuck with Malcolm Rifkind for many excruciating hours, as Gove had missed his first chance to suspend the member for Kensington from the party. Suspension seemed inevitable for all but Gove and Rifkind, but came later in the day.

Shortly after, in woeful timing, Malcolm Rifkind then appeared on Daily Politics to make jarring comments about his financial entitlement, "I do also want to have the standard of living that my previous professional life should entitle me to have."

Following his party suspension, attention turned to Rifkind's chairmanship of the Parliament Intelligence and Security Committee. Predictably, Rifkind refused to resign and Gove explained to the press that he had no power to remove him from the role. As the story dragged into a new day, and with pressure mounting, Rifkind finally stood down.

For Jack Straw, embroiled in as much scandal as Rifkind, the timely self-suspension saw off press pressure and attention and kept the scandal firmly with the Conservatives.

Under Gove, the affair dragged through the week with mounting pressure and the piece-by-piece dissolution of Rifkind ensured he remained as a top story from Monday to Wednesday. In the end, Rifkind has announced he will be stepping down as an MP in May.

This is just the latest mishandling by the chief whip since he was moved behind the scenes last July. After getting locked in a toilet on his first day, Gove then walked to the wrong voting chamber and later oversaw a defeat in the Commons. According to a Labour MP who was locked in the bathroom at the same time, the chief whip didn't have the "faintest idea" that he should be out whipping votes for the government.

Weeks later, Michael Gove supervised the first defeat of government legislation in four years when MPs rebelled and backed an amendment to allow pubs to purchase beer on an open market. A highly embarrassing and unexpected defeat, questions were raised as to why Gove didn't know about the amendment and the general mood of the Coalition.

Just before this first defeat, the Coalition faced a rebellion of 40 MPs, with cabinet ministers Sajid Javid and Theresa May even failing to turn up to vote. Gove was attributed to the defeat, with MPs saying he was too strict with his line of whip and had essentially invited the rebellion, especially as the vote was over handing law and order powers to Brussels.

The Prime Minister may have taken some solace in the sparse legislative agenda the Coalition has in the run up to the election, but would have probably preferred a safer pair of hands for the two defections to UKIP. One month after taking the chief whip office, Douglas Carswell defected, later followed by Mark Reckless.

Michael Gove was quick to appear on Daily Politics to denounce his former colleague, Mark Reckless, as a liar. However, he instead portrayed himself as a naive whip with little authority or loyalty. The chief whip stated that during a meal Mark Reckless had "assured me and others repeatedly that he was not going to defect".

If David Cameron emerges from the upcoming election in a position to form another government, he will undoubtedly have a more substantial agenda to pursue. However, he may need to reassess whether he can trust it in such a slippery pair of hands...