Whitehall’s whispering mandarin

A tribute to Sir Roy Stone, whose secretive role at the heart of Westminster made government possible


This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In the morning after the Tories’ 2017 election debacle, when Theresa May’s ambitions for Blair-style Commons dominance had crumbled into a lost majority, the chief whip, Gavin Williamson, turned to his private secretary and asked, “Do you think we could do a Walter Harrison?”

Both men had seen This House, James Graham’s play about the minority Labour governments of the ‘70s and the extreme manoeuvring of deputy chief whip Harrison which kept them in office. The man he asked, Sir Roy Stone, nodded slowly and replied, “I suppose we can. In fact we’re going to have to.”

Sir Roy was a parliamentary oracle. Virtually invisible outside the confines of the Government Whips’ Office, he was one of the most important figures in Westminster; the consummate professional whose whispered advice to successive chief whips, always delivered in strictest privacy, kept the business of government flowing smoothly through the parliamentary machine. 

His longevity in office, 21 years, meant he was institutional memory made flesh. He knew everyone and had seen everything, just like his equally legendary predecessor, Murdo Maclean, who served for 22 years. He was “the usual channels”, the go-between in the endless deal-making by government and opposition which sets the course of Commons life, and the go-to source for advice on how to work Westminster. His opinion mattered.

Dashing to westminster after his own election count, Williamson’s first consultation was with the PM herself, to establish if she felt she could continue. His second, tellingly, was with Sir Roy. With ultra-contentious Brexit legislation looming, both men saw the huge problems confronting Theresa May in implementing her Brexit plans without a majority. In due course the result was parliamentary dramas far eclipsing the half-forgotten turmoil of the Wilson and Callaghan years.

 Stone’s advice focused on what needed to be done to deliver the government’s agenda. What followed were a series of apparently technical rule changes designed to maintain the government’s grip on legislation. They included maintaining a government majority on the committees which vote on the fine detail of legislation, even though the Tories had failed to complete the small formality of actually winning a Commons majority.

“It was a constitutional outrage, but then there are plenty of those in Westminster,” said Alistair Carmichael, the wily Lib Dem chief whip during the coalition. And for the opposition, it foreclosed some promising opportunities for trouble making.

Stone would have known the change was bound to sow trouble for the future; experience had taught him that every shift in Westminster’s balance of power between government and opposition produces a reaction, and usually retaliation. Perhaps that decision was the first tiny pebble in the avalanche of parliamentary chaos over the following two years.

Roy Stone has now left Westminster and seems disinclined to return to his former haunts. But those who dealt with him still respect the confidentiality of the relationship: they checked with him before agreeing to speak to me, and, even then, there was still a sense of discretion about his role in events. “Even years on, talking about these things seems slightly risqué to an old whip,” one grumbled.

Stone operated at a time when the conventions of parliamentary life were under increasing pressure

His role was considerable. From a modest cubby hole next to the chief whip’s office, decorated in Commons institutional grunge, all mottled carpets and battered woodwork, Sir Roy and his predecessors (just four men have done the job in a century) have been the pivot of the parliamentary machine — grand masters of the art of the possible. Their task is to head off trouble, to spot the points at which the government’s law-making may run into difficulty and find ways around them, or at least ways to contain the resulting problems. In a sense the private secretary is the guardian of the conventions which are supposed to respect the rights of the opposition as well as ensure the government’s big bills and the constant stream of orders and regulations are duly approved.

The process of getting government business through is far less about House of Cards-style breaking the will of backbenchers (always, old whips insist, a misleading fiction) than about management. One said, “The reality is that it’s about saving the government from itself and steering it away from stupid ideas. The team is you as chief, talking to ministers, and Roy Stone talking to Whitehall — and it’s usually much more powerful to have him talking to officials saying, ‘FFS what the hell do you think you’re doing?’”

“The chief’s job is to manage government and Roy was the most powerful tool for doing that, because if things can be stopped through official channels then that saves you from using political capital at ministerial level.”

This is more necessary than you might think. “Whitehall believes that if you have a Commons majority you can do what you like,” said one insider. “But the reality is not like that, because it depends on what the MPs will wear. There’s a disjunction; ministers believe what the civil service tells them they can do, and then they get rudely disabused.”

Roy Stone’s Whitehall-facing role (especially including the special advisors and policy advisors around ministers) was to explain that the legislative process could be really difficult, not necessarily because MPs are technical experts (few are) but because they have a keen sense of what might annoy party worthies or cost them votes. 

Several chief whips admired the way Stone spoke truth to power. “He wouldn’t hesitate to challenge more powerful people,” Williamson said, “He never felt the need to gild anything. It may have been difficult for fragile egos, but realistic politics required it.”

Part of the reason was that he had reached the peak of his career, a notch or two below permanent secretary level. Thus he had no expectation of further advancement and no need to curry favour. Trust was the essential quality that made this subtle, demanding role possible. One insider summed up the inner secret of Westminster’s operating system as “deniable informality underpinned by omertà.” Each day of Commons debates saw a trade-off between the government’s requirement to get its agenda through, and the opposition’s desire to make its points — or, as one source dismissively put it, to blow off steam.

The private secretary was the go-between, and that required all sides to trust him. “He was incredibly professional and absolutely determined not to make a mistake or to do something regarded as unethical,” Labour’s long-serving former chief whip, Nick Brown told me. “You need the Roy Stone post in opposition as much as in government. When he struck a deal there would be no wriggle room, no ambiguity. It would all be in the programme motion and it would be set in stone. The business would move smoothly along rail lines to its destination. Roy held things together when the Gordon Brown government was under continuous attack.”

Another ex-chief whip, the Conservative Andrew Mitchell agrees: “He was the honest broker. He was the pipework between us; when people had a different recollection of what had been agreed, he squared the circle. He had to be objective and clear about what mattered.” Mitchell says Stone, and his predecessor Murdo Maclean, feature in all his “mental photographs” of great Commons votes, because they were so critical to the whole government operation. They were legends within a small and select circle at the core of parliamentary business.

Stone was particularly influential whenever a government hit parliamentary trouble, for example when the coalition’s NHS reforms ran into the sand. He insisted that the rewritten legislation had to go back for detailed scrutiny, or yet more trouble would follow. And the powers that be listened. 

Perhaps his greatest moment was the rushing-through of the EU Withdrawal Agreement bill, which cleared the Commons and the Lords unscathed on 30 December 2019 against the hardest of deadlines. It was “a huge achievement” in the view of one Commons insider, but went almost unremarked because it happened so smoothly. That smoothness was the product of a deep understanding of the parliamentary ecosystem.

Stone’s true superpower was both his grasp of legislation and his canny understanding of politics

Stone operated at a time when the conventions of parliamentary life were under increasing pressure. They seem like small things; governments not encroaching on opposition day debates by using up a couple of hours for ministerial statements, ensuring that debates on the detail of bills gave time for key opposition amendments. This sense of balance and respect for the rights of the other side have always mattered in parliament, and bad things happen when one side decides the other has been cheating. The system can suddenly grind to a halt, and with it the vital business of government.

Such niceties, complains Nick Brown, are now being abandoned in the face of a government’s need to keep control of its legislation. So the way report stages of bills are timetabled and amendments grouped together — potentially the most dangerous moment in the life cycle of a bill — is, he says, increasingly configured to head off awkward votes. “Back then, the opposition was carried out through negotiation and convention — the story of what happened next is one of changing times and standards.”

The state needs Parliament to work. Delivering a steady stream of laws and regulations is delivering government — and so at one level it is possible to see Sir Roy Stone and his predecessors and successors as essential agents of a Deep State determined to keep the show on the road. What Stone always wanted, one chief whip told me, was a powerful whips’ office, which not only understood the limits of what was possible, but also had the influence at the top table to ensure that ministers did not attempt the unwise or the impossible. Stone’s true superpower was both his grasp of legislation and his canny understanding of politics. It meant he was able to give exceptionally good advice to the Chief Whips and ultimately the system he served.

Peter Hennessy’s “good chaps” theory of constitutional government relies not only on politicians with an innate sense of boundaries, but also on officials who point to where they lie in a shifting landscape. Roy Stone performed that role, sometimes forcefully, for a succession of governments.

The question is whether the requisite good chaps and good officials are still there to operate the Hennessey model. “People underestimate this,” says Gavin Williamson. “In politics, titles are nice, but it’s really what you do with the power you have that matters; Roy Stone understood how power moved and worked.” 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover