The reshuffle is coming up and Mark Spencer, the Chief Whip, will be a pivotal figure in deciding who gets what.
In July 2019 he helped Boris Johnson to construct his first government, working in secret with him for a week or ten days before the result of the Tory leadership race was announced, planning with the help of a white board how to purge and replace Theresa May’s team.
Spencer’s appointment as Chief Whip was revealed on the new leader’s first day, and met with broad approval in the parliamentary party, which regards him as a thoroughly decent person, friendly and approachable.
In the press, he was described, accurately enough, as “a relative unknown”, and he has since contrived to remain one of the least known major players at Westminster. One cannot help admiring the sheer paucity of published information about this farmer from Nottinghamshire.
As Chief Whip he had to cope with the huge difficulties of running a minority Government, and was soon at the heart of an exceptionally painful business: the withdrawal at the start of September of the Conservative whip from 21 rebels, including nine former Cabinet ministers, who were legislating to rule out a no deal Brexit.
It seemed to many Conservatives that the party was destroying itself by expelling such redoubtable figures as Kenneth Clarke, Dominic Grieve, Sir Oliver Letwin and Sir Nicholas Soames.
The decision to take such ruthless action was made in Downing Street, where plans were being made and the groundwork laid for a general election fought on the slogan “Get Brexit Done”.
The Prime Minister saw there was no point going into such a contest with a number of candidates who had no intention of getting Brexit done, and would vote against a future Conservative government on the issue.
As one of Johnson’s closest colleagues points out, in March 2019, when four Cabinet ministers abstained rather than vote against an earlier measure preventing a no deal Brexit, and were not sacked for their act of defiance, the party’s poll ratings fell, because voters realised May was not serious about getting Brexit done.
The withdrawal of the whip nevertheless induced queasiness in many Conservatives, and at a meeting of the 1922 Committee, a backbencher told Johnson the expulsions should not go ahead.
Johnson replied that he could not interfere in whipping matters, and Spencer, who had done the Prime Minister’s bidding, maintained a straight face.
A close observer of the Chief Whip during this fraught period praises him for never getting “frazzled or ratty or ragged”, and suggests that his agricultural experience was of value when carrying out “the rather horrible but necessary surgical excision of a number of our colleagues”:
“A farmer will unsentimentally recognise that a lame ewe needs to be put down.”
Not all the 21 MPs were put down. Spencer instituted a “snakes and ladders” programme, whereby if they started voting with the Government, they could climb a ladder and regain the whip, whereas if they continued defiant, they slid down a snake and had no chance of rehabilitation.
According to The Times,
“Mr Spencer warned the rebels that he had sole discretion about whether to allow an appeal against their expulsion. He also insisted that the original decision was justified to restore discipline. ‘For too long the Conservative government has been hampered by those who believe that the normal rules of party politics do not apply to them,’ he said.”
Ten of the rebels regained the whip, four of whom stood in the election and held their seats, while 11 left the party for good, five of whom stood as Liberal Democrats or independents, all of whom lost.
Spencer will now be working on the reshuffle expected next month. In the words of the source quoted earlier, he will be
“advising the Prime Minister which of the bulls should be retained and which of the clapped out old milkers should be sent to the abattoir.”
When David Cameron and George Osborne were running the Government, Osborne took a close interest in junior ministerial appointments, which Margaret Thatcher used to leave to the Chief Whip, whose power depends in large part on the control of patronage.
But the hope of future patronage is likewise the main means by which a Prime Minister induces loyalty, and Johnson has so far shown himself keenly aware of which aspirants to ministerial office have demonstrated loyalty to himself, and which have not.
Spencer is a natural loyalist. Some MPs think he carries this too far. A senior backbencher compared him unfavourably to two previous Chief Whips:
“He does not seem willing or able to stand up to Downing Street. He seems to lack the guile and experience of the dark arts of a Gavin Williamson or an Andrew Mitchell.”
But one could say that Spencer has conducted matters admirably, by restoring the discipline which showed that the Conservatives would indeed get Brexit done. To achieve that, a certain straightforwardness and practicality were required.
Next Monday he will be 50. He was born into a farming family in Nottinghamshire in 1970, went to the local state school, Colonel Frank Seely, at Calverton, and then to Shuttleworth Agricultural College in Bedfordshire, before joining the family farm, a business into which his own children have followed him.
Farmers Weekly recently reported that it was through getting involved in the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs, of which he became chairman in 1999, that Spencer got drawn into politics:
“His children are involved in their local YFC and Mr Spencer says it was the federation that inspired his political career.
“‘I still think of myself as a farmer, I like to think that I’ve still got a little bit of farming, although I don’t get a lot of time to do it, but I think Young Farmers pulled me into politics slowly.
“‘You sort of get drawn into young people’s issues, whether that is housing, rural transport, the issues around access into agriculture, succession planning, so you find yourself moving from thinking about rugby and socialising and drawn into those small ‘p’ political issues,’ he says.”
In 2001 he stood and failed for Nottinghamshire County Council, in 2003 he got elected to Gedling District Council and in 2005 he also managed to become a county councillor.
Here evidently was a man of energy who liked being involved in public life. In 2010 he stood as parliamentary candidate in Sherwood, in Nottinghamshire, and took the seat off Labour by 214 votes.
So Spencer has experience of fighting a marginal, though his majority rose in 2019 to 16,186. All eight county seats in Nottinghamshire are now in Conservative hands, including Mansfield, next to Sherwood, won in 2017 by Ben Bradley, who used to work as campaign manager for Spencer. The three borough seats in Nottingham remain firmly Labour.
In his maiden speech Spencer said:
“Many Members will be aware of Sherwood forest and its legends, and of all that Sherwood is famous for, so they will not be surprised to know that I am not the most famous person from Sherwood. That honour probably goes to Robin Hood. Like Robin Hood, I have a desire to counter over-taxation, to protect the most vulnerable in society, and to make sure that oppressive government does not bring misery on the people.”
But there is nothing of the outlaw about Spencer, and the most heartfelt passages in his speech came later, when he said tougher measures were needed to clamp down on anti-social behaviour, “so that local residents are well protected from the abusive and intimidatory activity of unscrupulous members of the public.”
On the rare occasions Spencer has attracted interest and indeed opprobrium in the press, it tends to be by standing up for stern measures, as when he observed of a man with learning difficulties who had been sanctioned after turning up four minutes late for a job interview:
“It is important that those who are seeking employment learn the discipline of timekeeping, which is an important part of securing and keeping a job.”
But one cannot accuse Spencer of courting publicity by spouting extravagant views. Mike Sassi, until recently editor of The Nottingham Post, told ConHome:
“Unfortunately Mr Spencer is not someone who spends much time in the local media.
“He rarely courted us at The Post, although he did return our calls and was usually helpful. Obviously he was most talkative about rural issues. But he generally kept his head down – outside of appearances on the BBC East Midlands Politics Show.
“I used to see him delivering produce from his family farm, in the local villages – but less so in recent years.”
In 2016 Spencer became a junior whip, and he has remained in the Whips’ Office ever since. In a rare moment of outspokenness he sympathised on Twitter with Coleen Rooney after she thought she had discovered which of her friends was betraying her to the press. According to Spencer,
“Coleen would make an excellent whip. Have to say my respect for her has grown enormously. Shouldn’t underestimate how frustrating it must be living in constant public view, knowing someone you trust is talking to the media.”
Millions of people will agree with Spencer that this would be deeply frustrating. One suspects that in the forthcoming reshuffle, practical ability, and the ability to keep one’s mouth shut, will be valued above theatrical gifts.
The Prime Minister does not need to recruit people like himself. He needs ministers who can deliver. In Spencer, whom he did not know well before appointing him, he has found a Chief Whip who will recommend for preferment MPs of unshowy worth.
Not the least of the paradoxes of the Johnson government is that it intends to be thoroughly professional.