Do Government Chief Whips have an afterlife?

Sir David Butler is one of Britain’s most respected and experienced political analysts. In this Guest Post he discusses what happens to Chief Whips when they leave their job. 

The Government Chief Whip is little known to the British public – Andrew Mitchell’s ill-fated moment in the spotlight being one of the exceptions – but the post holder is at the centre of British politics. The Prime Minister has to rely on the incumbent to manage parliament, to quell revolt and to spot talent. The Chief Whip in turn has to employ tact and charm, bullying and bribery to control the troops; it is not for nothing that they are known as the Patronage Secretary. MPs know that their prospects fate, to a significant extent, lies in the hands of the Chief Whip. The voters remain in ignorance because the Chief Whip almost never speaks in public; the carrots and sticks, essential to the job, are seldom unveiled.

Sooner or later however the time comes for the Chief Whip to move on, especially once the Prime Minister – or the MPs – lose faith in them. Perhaps the occupant has come to feel the post is too onerous or too boring.

But is the office the end of a career or a stepping stone to new opportunities? It is worth looking at what has happened to Patronage Secretaries over the last ninety years.

Since 1922 there have been 30 individuals in charge at 12 Downing Street. One (Lord Monsell) took  over the office three times and a further three held it twice (William Whiteley, Bob Mellish and Nick Brown); another four shared the position during the wartime Coalition.

Almost all ended their days in the House of Lords. Among Conservatives, Edward Heath is the shining exception. Seven Labour Chief Whips refused or were not offered peerages (Spoor, Kennedy, Edwards, Whiteley and Silkin and, recently, Hoon and Smith). It was not until the 1970s that a Labour ex-Chief Whip reached the Lords.

A more important question is: how many had a significant political life after leaving 12 Downing Street?

In 12 cases their tenure was ended by a General Election, although six of these had a significant parliamentary career when in due course their party returned to power.

Of the 17 others who left the post in a mid-term reshuffle: 15 jumped straight back into ministerial office; 8 of them into the full Cabinet, including two (David Waddington and Jacqui Smith) who moved to brief spells as Home Secretary, and one (John Wakeham), who had ten years at the top as Leader of the Commons and then the Lords. Francis Pym was later to become Foreign Secretary. Only David Margesson was promoted straightway to the obscurity of the Lords while Richard Ryder retired to the back benches awaiting his peerage in the 1997 dissolution Honours.

Few ex-Chief Whips however became very important on the political stage. Wakeham, and, still more, Heath stand out as the eminent exceptions.

So while many Chief Whips do have a political afterlife, the post is often the most significant that an individual will ever hold. Andrew Mitchell may want to take note of that rather depressing fact.

2 Responses to “Do Government Chief Whips have an afterlife?”

  1. Stephen Smith
    October 23, 2012 at 5:54 pm #

    An interesting blog post. A few quick thoughts:

    1. I think Andrew Mitchell is the first chief whip to leave under scandal or through political protest – every other one seems to have left with electoral defeat, with their Prime Minister, or as part of a run of the mill reshuffle. Every other cabinet level post has a fair casualty list going back over the last few decades but not this one.

    2. It is something of a surprise that chief whip’s so rarely have a career beyond No12 – more than almost any other post in government they are there through loyalty/fealty to their PM – they’re not there to provide political balance, to be a good presenter, as a ‘big beast’ but to deliver the Parliamentary Party for their PM – so why do so few get much reward after their days in post?

    3. Its notable quite how many people end up doing the job twice or thrice – you look back through any list of other cabinet members and its rare, very rare, for someone to go the same job twice. It’s a unique job, yes, but does this imply a far smaller pool of people deemed qualified to do it?

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