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Wrong about whips

This Tuesday’s Independent contained what was for the most part a by-the-numbers article about parliamentary whipping; it managed to squeeze in references to ‘fear’, ‘submission’, ‘the little black book’, and ‘Francis Urquhart’ all in the first two paragraphs. But it was saved by the inclusion of Whip’s Top Trumps profiles.  They only covered four of the current whips, graded on empathy, competence, and ferocity, but there is clearly the potential for something wider.  I’d pay good money for a historic Whips Top Trumps set, in which I could match up Tommy McAvoy and David Margesson.

The core of the Independent’s piece was that, as well as being an especially rebellious bunch, many of the new MPs were also complaining about being kept late for votes, only then to see the government win with enormous majorities.  As the paper reported:

“The whips seem to have no sense at all of ‘threat management’,” said one disgruntled backbencher who, like a number of his colleagues, was not confident enough to be named.

He said: “We’re all being kept here – often late into the night – to vote and then we end up with a majority of over 200 because no one from the other side turns up. It’s a total waste of everyone’s time and not a good way to run Parliament.” Another MP said: “The whips’ office doesn’t appear to have any sense of career development for new MPs like me. All they seem to care about is us doing as we’re told. But many of us have lived in the modern world and won’t simply accept that things are done like this ‘because they always have been’.”

I get cited in the piece, described as a ‘political commentator’, a phrase which always brings to mind that Alan Watkins line about people wanting to be constitutional experts (‘how many O levels does that require?’).   And for some reason, the reference is to the whips wielding discipline through their ‘little black book’, even though almost everything I’ve ever written on the subject has tried to stress how this is the wrong way to understand the role of the whips.

But what really struck me is how similar all these complaints are to those I’ve heard before.  As I wrote in a book about the 1997 period: ‘the main criticism of the whips under Blair was neither of arm-twisting nor bullying but just of poor and ineffective time-management.  A number of backbenchers felt there was a ‘psychological desire’ on the part of the whips to have a majority of at least 100 in every vote.  As another put it: ‘They [the whips] are like First World War generals.  They don’t need to think; they just throw numbers at the problem’.

It’s easy to criticize whips for this, and suspect that they are just being bloody minded or thoughtless.  But it’s their job to get the business through; they need to have enough MPs present to cope with the possibility of an Opposition ambush; and they also need to get MPs to realize that delivering the government’s legislation is part of their job.  If you can’t secure discipline and attendance at the beginning of a Parliament, then what chance do you have when things get tough at the end, let alone during a second term?

Philip Cowley

Published inBritish PoliticsRevolts

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