WHERE was Tory rebel MP Jesse Norman yesterday? The man who led the backbench revolt against Lord reform wasn't in the House for Prime Minister's Questions. Had he made himself scarce after his finger-wagging from David Cameron on Tuesday over the Lords rebellion?
Or had Norman done a runner in response to the wild rumours that, later on Tuesday, he had been advised to leave the Palace of Westminster because the Tories' deputy chief whip John Randall was "on the rampage" and – so the story goes – was in the mood to "do an Eric Joyce" on the rebel leader?
The prosaic answer is that Norman had to spend Wednesday in his constituency because the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were visiting Hereford and Worcester on their Jubilee Tour of the UK.
While Jesse joined the crowds waving their union jacks, the gossip was in full flow at Westminster.
Conservativehome editor Tim Montgomerie wrote yesterday that the Cameron-Norman altercation was not actually as bad as originally reported.
The PM was apparently "testy" rather than "intimidatory" when he confronted Norman in the division lobby as Tory MPs crowded in to vote against the government.
Montgomerie explains: "The PM had objected to a communication that Norman had made to rebel and wavering Tory MPs in which it had been suggested that a rebel vote would be helping the PM. This had got back to Number 10 and Mr Cameron took his opportunity to make it clear that a rebel vote was absolutely NOT what he wanted. Jesse Norman then wrote another email to colleagues affirming this fact.
"That's the truth of things. Not as bad as reported but not a party of happy bunnies either."
Ed Miliband, the only party leader enjoying himself right now, brought up the subject of "fisticuffs in the lobby" at PMQs. Cameron sought to dismiss it as "tittle-tattle and rumour – utterly pathetic!" but became more and more tetchy as Miliband kept at him. "The redder he gets, the less he convinces people," said Ed.
As for the John Randall rumour, the story doing the rounds yesterday was that a group of Tory whips hunted Norman down in the Strangers' Bar and warned him that he should scarper if he didn't want the deputy chief whip to give him the treatment Labour MP Eric Joyce famously meted out to a Tory backbencher in the same bar in February – namely, a good head-butting.
Needless to say, there is no evidence that Randall intended such a thing. But with MPs off this weekend on their seven weeks summer holiday, they need something to gossip about with their partners.
Whatever the truth, Jesse Norman obviously removed himself of the Strangers' Bar before anything could happen – and now he gets the last laugh. Cameron told a private meeting of Tory MPs that the coalition would have "one last go" to get a timetable motion limiting debate on the Lords reform bill when they come back for a short session in September and if that fails, they will dump the bill rather than suffer their programme being blocked by endless debate in the Upper House.
Norman and his chums took that to mean Cameron is waving the white flag, and they are encouraged to stage another rebellion - only next time it will be even bigger. ·