It is a testing time to be an MP. The recession is piling the pressure on the UK’s politicians who are working under the country’s first coalition for 70 years and trying to deal with the twists and turns of a world economy in turmoil. CATHERINE BELL spoke to Shailesh Vara about making history, in more ways than one.
NATIONALLY, public opinion of MPs is not usually favourable.
At a local level, however, people see their MP as an ally, someone to turn to – their job, after all, is to represent the people who have elected them.
MPs who are also government ministers must juggle that commitment with the demanding job of helping to run the country. Shailesh Vara is one such MP.
Elected as the Conservative MP for North West Cambridgeshire in 2005, he was appointed an assistant government whip when the historic coalition came to power in May 2010.
Party whips have the unenviable role of ensuring their colleagues toe the party line – not always as straightforward as it sounds. Take the recent vote on Lords reform.
However, it is a role Mr Vara relishes.
“Working in the Whips’ Office is very demanding,” said Mr Vara. “There is a huge range of issues to deal with: the business of the chamber, Westminster Hall, and the departments for which we are responsible – and we have to be there for our flock of MPs.”
He continued: “I come back to my constituency every week, normally on a Thursday evening. I have to do all the work of a whip combined with being an MP. It’s quite a demanding job, as it is for other ministers, like [Huntingdon MP] Jonathan Djanogly.”
A coalition government makes the already important job of party whips imperative: no overall power means it is more difficult for the Conservatives, or Liberal Democrats, to win votes on policy.
Mr Vara said: “We haven’t had a coalition for 70 years, so this is a new experience for all of us.
“The job of the whips is to ensure the government legislative programme goes through. If the programme doesn’t go through, the Government falls.”
The Lords vote was an occasion when the whips worked hard.
“A large number of colleagues simply said they were against reform,” said Mr Vara. “They were determined to make it known when it came to vote.
“Occasionally you have a subject that splits opinion, such as the Euro or House of Lords. What I say to colleagues is, look, this is party politics. We were elected on a Conservative programme and you can’t, once you’re in Government as a Conservative, mix and match policies. If they want to do that, they should stand as an independent. People have their own views but we need to work as a team. If we don’t, the whole process of Parliament will fail – 650 MPs all acting independently is absurd. We have to have some order.”
As well cracking the whip (metaphorically speaking, of course), one of Mr Vara’s responsibilities is to support his colleagues.
“What people don’t appreciate is MPs are like any other human beings – they have all the same problems,” said Mr Vara. “There are 650 MPs and among them are people who are unwell, have domestic problems, bereavements… So arrangements have to be made for them to be away, and it’s a question of keeping in touch with colleagues and making sure their welfare is ok.
“We also have to balance the numbers. We have to have a system in place – we can’t just let 100 people go away.”
On top of all this, whips can also be called on to deputise for their departments’ secretaries of state.
Mr Vara made history when he stepped in for Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Ken Clarke, who was unable to host his department’s scheduled question time in the House of Commons earlier this year.
Mr Vara said: “It was the first time that a whip doubled up for a secretary of state and I also became the first ethnic minority MP to speak from the Government despatch box. Ministers usually avoid conferences and oversees trips to make sure they are in Parliament for questions, otherwise the Opposition starts asking ‘Why isn’t he here?’. To have no ministers available was very unusual.”
He continued: “The lesson I learned was that it’s important to have done your preparatory work. I didn’t really have much time to look at the briefing papers I had, but I’m pleased to say it went well.
“I was nervous beforehand. Everybody is nervous – anybody who says they aren’t… Well, I don’t believe them. It’s on the record, televised, written down verbatim… People opposite you dissect everything you say and come back instantly if they feel there’s something they can score a point on. I was fortunate.”
Parliamentary commentators commented on Mr Vara’s confident performance, commending him for speaking without notes.
He said: “I was pleased with how it went.”
Mr Vara is also quite pleased by how the coalition is working.
“It’s going very well,” he said. “I have to say that two years ago I didn’t think it would go as well as it has.
“I would much rather have a Conservative majority but the brutal truth is the electorate decided that they wanted a coalition – that’s how the figures stacked up. So, we work with the Lib Dems. It does mean some of our policies have to be compromised, and some Lib Dem policies have to be compromised, too. We went into the Coalition on the basis that the country was in the worst economic state for 70 years. It was in the national interest to have a Government in place to try to sort out the economic problems, problems, which took precedence over party politics.”
Government ministers, and in particular whips, can often be in Parliament more than 12 hours a day, ensuring the business of the house runs smoothly.
Mr Vara said: “We work very long days. We have a daily whips’ meeting, and we’re in Parliament every single day, from 9am, sometimes earlier. We leave at 11pm, when Parliament rises. Basically, we are responsible for what happens in the chamber – as long as it’s functioning, we have to be there.”
“There isn’t a lot of private time left,” the father of two young boys continued.
“It’s for the electorate ultimately to decide whether or not I continue, but I certainly enjoy my job.
“I do my best.”