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Chief whips matter more than ever in an age of minority government

Chief whips matter more than ever in an age of minority government
4 min read

The hung parliament means party discipline – and those who enforce it – have never been more important, writes Kevin Maguire


Disciplinarians of politics, unite! We have entered the age of the enforcer when minority government in a hung parliament completes an electoral trinity with the majority and coalition versions produced over three successive elections.

Every single MP possesses considerable power in the House of Commons when an outbreak of gastroenteritis on the backbenches or a couple of ministers marooned in fog-bound Riga could conceivably mean the difference between winning and losing knife-edge contests.

The democracy of the division lobbies rolls the playing field flatter than the wicket at the Oval, one member-one vote leaving the prime minister and chancellor playing at the same level as a Tory rebel, Labour stalwart or the sole Green, Caroline Lucas, when everybody files past the Aye and No tellers.

By my count when a combined opposition is amassed the joint forces of Labour, SNP, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the Green and Northern Ireland Independent Sylvia Hermon can muster a maximum 313 votes.

The ruling Conservative government is able to call on 316 MPs of its own plus 10 Democratic Unionist reinforcements as long as the £100m per head, £1 billion confidence and supply agreement is sustained with some of Northern Ireland’s canniest negotiators.

The age of the enforcer and requirement for discipline, defying the party line no longer a free hit in tight results, turbo-charges the positions of the likes of the Conservatives’ Gavin Williamson, Labour’s Nick Brown, SNP’s Patrick Grady, Liberal Democrats’ Alistair Carmichael and DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson.

Chief whips are very definitely “in” at the moment, mattering more than ever despite always being of great fundamental importance in the functioning of Westminster.

The same is true in the House of Lords where operators such as likes the government’s Lord “John” Taylor of Holbeach, who glories in the grand title of captain of the gentlemen at arms, and Labour’s Lord “Steve” Bassam of Brighton do battle in a chamber where shifting alliances based on the soundness of arguments and the fragility of allegiances makes for a fascinatingly fluid fight.

This hung Parliament similarly thrusts Commons Speaker John Bercow and, to a lesser though still significant extent, Lords Speaker Baron “Norman” Fowler, into a brighter spotlight with the calling of amendments acquiring a potentially sharper edge.

Why particular amendments are picked by the chair is shrouded in a cloak of mystery when political journalists peer down from perches in the press gallery, Speakers gauging the mood of a house in advance and dare I say adding a pinch of mischief.

We witnessed the interplay of the fresh realities in a government with a slim majority avoiding a potential defeat to the Queen’s speech by accepting an amendment tabled by Labour’s Stella Creasy, and chosen for debate by the Commons Speaker, to grant women in Northern Ireland, where terminations are outlawed, the right to receive free NHS abortions in England.

Had Theresa May secured the landslide she anticipated in triggering the early election, or Bercow decided another issue be discussed, health secretary Jeremy Hunt is unlikely to have moved last week and women in those six counties of Ulster would continue to be charged by clinics.

The jettisoning of promises in a Conservative manifesto unendorsed by a majority of MPs, out of the window going everything from means testing winter fuel allowances and a third of the pension triple-lock to extra grammar schools and fox hunting, is the result of the inevitable search for sustainable ground.

Brexit is the greatest unknown with the devil in unoffered detail to endow MPs on both wings of the argument with unexpected influence. 

No wonder the most obscure old timers and greenest newbies find their opinions are in demand like never before.  

 

Kevin Maguire is Daily Mirror associate editor  

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