In response to criticism by some Conservative MPs of Dominic Raab’s handling of the Afghanistan crisis, one ally of the Foreign Secretary is reported to have said ‘The foreign secretary doesn’t have time to sit in the tearoom talking to MPs who’ve read a few articles and suddenly think they know lots about foreign affairs’.
As regular readers will know, utilising informal space – the tea and dining rooms, the division lobbies (pictured) and corridors – to talk to MPs is actually an important part of generating and maintaining political support. As I argued in my April 2019 article in Parliamentary Affairs, the use of informal space in Parliament matters. It matters to MPs for the purposes of socialisation, essentially learning the norms of Westminster and how to do the job – something MPs newly elected in 2019 have missed it on because of the pandemic – as well as for lobbying, information exchange, and – crucial for ministers – maintaining political support. As one senior Cabinet minister once reported, he dined in the Commons’ dining room at least once a week ‘without fail – you must’.
Doing the rounds in the tea and dining rooms is a core part of keeping MPs on one’s side, especially important when problems arise. If ministers have not maintained a presence, they are vulnerable when they encounter stormy political waters. That applies to Prime Ministers. As I recorded in the article, the failure to utilise informal space left Edward Heath vulnerable when challenged for the party leadership. It was the same with Margaret Thatcher and, indeed, John Major, who spent a great deal of time in the tea and dining rooms before becoming Prime Minister, but neglected the space when in No. 10. Theresa May was also not one for spending time mixing informally and again that counted against her when the situation over Brexit became critical. It may also render Boris Johnson vulnerable. He does not have a history of spending time rubbing shoulders with backbenchers.
The problem is especially acute for Prime Ministers in that the very fact of being Prime Minister tends to keep them away from informal space in Westminster. They are too tied up with running Government than in bolstering their political base. As Margaret Thatcher said to Kenneth Baker after the 1990 leadership contest, ‘You… told me that I would have to ring up MPs and spend time in the Tea Room. That’s not for me after eleven years…’. Her neglect of informal space, according to one of her supporters, cost her anything between ten and thirty crucial votes.
It is thus a challenge for the occupant of No. 10. The premiership of James Callaghan (pictured) demonstrated, though, that it can be done. He was adept at spending time in the Palace, mixing with backbenchers. To some extent he made a virtue of a necessity, in that he had to be present often late at night for crucial votes, but chatting informally to Members was something that came naturally to him. He made a habit of attending the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party. When the support of third parties became crucial to the Government’s survival, he spent time in the Palace lobbying members of minor parties in order to do deals with them. His use of informal space not only kept his leadership secure, it helped keep his Government in office.
Mobilising support through the use of informal space was a challenge for ministers during the pandemic, when such contact had to be virtual. It will be interesting to see how informal space is structured, and how it is used by ministers, once both Houses decant during the period of the Restoration and Renewal Programme. For MPs, making use of proceedings in the chamber and committee rooms is clearly important. It is the use of such formal space that attracts attention and scholarly analysis – it is public and measurable behaviour. However, what happens away from the chamber matters as well and can be crucial in explaining outcomes.