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The unusual channels: how to whip MPs in the age of coronavirus

26 min read

With MPs dispersed across the country and social distancing rules disrupting life at Westminster, the coronavirus pandemic is, in the words of one politician, a “whips' worst nightmare”. Sebastian Whale explores how the art of whipping has evolved – and reports on how whips are adapting to a new age

The decision to end the Hybrid Parliament last month left many people scratching their heads. While Jacob Rees-Mogg argued returning MPs to Westminster would better serve the constituents they seek to represent, some wondered if the Commons Leader had conveyed the whole story.

Were a mysterious group of Westminster dwellers actually pulling the strings?

“Everybody is dispersed around the country, so the whips have absolutely no control of the situation,” says one Conservative backbencher. “They were very keen, therefore, to get as many people back as quickly as possible.”

With social distancing measures in place, scores of MPs shielding and proxy voting expanded, the pandemic presents a unique challenge for whips. “It is a whips’ worst nightmare,” says a former whip. Another argues: “It is a horror story.” And a former Cabinet minister adds: “There is an issue of how to keep your finger on the pulse.” 

It is harder to get the mood and the feel for how people are thinking

Where once whips would deploy more sinister methods to ensure their troops entered the correct division lobby, they now rely on low-level intelligence gathering and relationship development. Integral to their work are the informal encounters – the quiet word in the corridor or grimace in the tearoom – that provide essential information. 

While technology allows whips to monitor social media feeds and message MPs either in groups or directly, it is often a poor substitute for the real thing. Checking in over the phone lacks the same nuance of a face-to-face interaction, where body language can be a means of communication in and of itself.

"If you phone somebody up, they will be ready for you a bit more. In your own home environment, it’s easier to say, ‘I hear what you’re saying but I’m going to carry on as I am’," says an ex-deputy chief whip.

Even with the prevalence of messaging forums such as WhatsApp, challenges persist. A former Conservative chief whip explains: “People are understandably concerned about writing stuff down. It is harder to get the mood and the feel for how people are thinking."

Personal interactions are especially pertinent for new arrivals to Westminster. One hundred and nine new Tory MPs were elected in December 2019. Some represent constituencies that the Conservatives have never previously won at a general election. 

Due to the coronavirus crisis, whips have been unable to bed them in at Westminster in the usual fashion. 

Unfamiliar with how the place functions, newbie’s supple political brains need to be moulded and reinforced with the idea that implementing the Government’s agenda is what they were elected to do, and that party allegiance can help advance their careers.

A former Tory MP, who served as a whip in opposition, explains: “It’s like the Society of Jesus in the 18th Century: you show them the bible but also the instruments of torture.”

The impact of the pandemic on new MPs’ sense of loyalty has already played out in the Commons. More than 20 Tory MPs from the 2019 intake voted in support of an amendment by Labour MP Chris Bryant that denied members the right to debate the most serious sanctions determined by an independent panel on bullying and harassment. While it was a free vote, in doing so they faced down coded instructions from senior members of the whips office as to how they should proceed.

Once you have crossed that rubicon, the fear for the whips is that rebelling becomes easier to do again. Incumbent MPs certainly got a taste for it during the notorious 2017-2019 Parliament.

Means of instilling team unity have also been diluted with MPs in different parts of the country and socialising largely curtailed. Couple that with a new voting system where only four people vote at once in the ‘Aye’ and ‘No’ lobbies and rebellions are easier to carry out.

“The most difficult thing for many people when they’re voting against their party is going physically into a lobby without their mates - it feels weird. That you lose,” says an ex-Tory whip.

For whips, social media has proved to be a double-edged sword. It provides a free intelligence-gathering tool to ascertain the mood of MPs and identify those who might need to be brought into line. "It is the equivalent of GCHQ; they keep an eye on their flock," says a former whip.

On the other hand, the ease with which MPs can make public their displeasure has somewhat diluted the influence whips hold over backbenchers.

Michael Dobbs, whose iconic novel House of Cards helped bring whips international fame, says: "Nowadays, politicians seem to stake their loyalty far more to their Twitter and Facebook followers than to the party. That’s a fact of life, love it or hate it, but the authority of the whips isn’t what it used to be."

In May, 22 Conservatives rebelled on the Agriculture Bill in an attempt to ban the sale of chlorinated-chicken and hormone-injected beef in the UK. While four are thought to have done so by accident, action has been taken against one of the rebels, Theresa Villiers, who has had her place on the Intelligence and Security committee removed.

Whips have such tools at their disposal – the chief whip is also known as the patronage secretary – but these powers have reduced in recent years. "It is for the chief whip to dish out the goodies. If you call being a member of a committee a goodie," jokes a Tory backbencher.

There has to be a question mark at the moment as to whether that system is working. A lot of the things that have happened recently, the Government has been advised quietly not to do by members

Whips still allocate MPs’ offices and hold significant sway in ministerial appointments. The chief whip will put forward nominees to the prime minister, as they are more in tune with talent and loyalty on the backbenches, and are better suited to filling the more junior roles, such as PPSs.

Insiders say chiefs are still treated with deference by MPs on their own side in part because of the perception that they can make or break ministerial careers and cause backbenchers problems.

But where once they made appointments to the influential select committees, the House now votes on such matters instead.

“So, you don’t really have an awful lot of power,” says Mark Harper, who served as Government chief whip from May 2015-July 2016. “Much of it has to be persuasion in the genuine sense of convincing people something is correct or otherwise. It is also about understanding what the concerns are and who best can deal with them.”

As one free-minded Tory backbencher says: “I’ve got nothing they can take off me, which is a nice situation to be in.”

It is not only maintaining party discipline where whips currently face obstacles. While channelling the desires of the Government, they also pass on concerns from the troops back to No 10. Deprive this two-way system of oxygen and it leads to unrest, even if you’re sitting on a majority of 80.

“There has to be a question mark at the moment as to whether that system is working. A lot of the things that have happened recently, the Government has been advised quietly not to do by members,” argues Peter Bone, a Tory MP and longstanding critic of the whipping system.

“I don’t blame the whips for that. I think it’s the advisers around the prime minister who are not letting that information get to the prime minister.”

The House of Commons without whips is like a city without sewers

MPs on the Government benches have been unhappy with the failure to fully reopen schools and with the fallout from claims that Dominic Cummings breached lockdown rules. 

“Colleagues are minded to support the Government, whatever their other views are, recognising how difficult it is. But you do need things to be delivered well. You can live with a few cock-ups, but you can’t have too many of them,” warns one senior backbencher.

Some Conservative MPs believe the Government whips are rising to the challenge. “They’ve done very well in terms of holding it together and communicating," says a former Cabinet minister.

While often maligned by rebellious backbenchers, and shrouded in mystery thanks to recent creative works, whips do play a pivotal role in the functioning of the UK’s democracy, albeit a slightly diminishing one. As Enoch Powell once unflatteringly said: “The House of Commons without whips is like a city without sewers.”

“The basic duty of a whip is to deliver the votes,” says former Labour MP and author of ‘How to be a government whip’, Helen Jones. “Anything else is second to that.”

A term with its origins in hunting, whips are responsible for their own ‘flock’; a pool of MPs and one or two Whitehall departments. Labour have historically assigned MPs by region.

The chief whip, a post dating back to the 16th Century, is the most senior member of the brigade who acts as the main conduit between the whips’ office and the party leader. 

Chiefs must be forthright with party leaders about the views of backbenchers and the likelihood of legislation passing. Bob Mellish, Labour chief whip from 1969-76, told Harold Wilson bluntly that a bill stood no chance of getting through. “I’m telling you as chief whip to cut the bloody thing out,” he told the prime minister. Wilson obliged.

The chief has real sway when it comes to the position of their party leader. Some argue that Margaret Thatcher’s lack of rapport with Tim Renton during the leadership challenge against her in 1990 meant that the chief whip had failed to impress on the prime minister the seriousness of her plight. Renton also stayed neutral during the contest.

Too often, whips hide themselves in offices. You need to walk around the place, you need to talk to people and see what’s going on

In late 2003, David Maclean told Iain Duncan Smith directly that he was losing the support of MPs and should leave or face a leadership challenge. In a symbolic sign of Theresa May’s beleaguered leadership, Julian Smith abstained on extending Article 50 at a March 2019 vote.

Chiefs and their whips must also have their ears to the ground to hear of any potential coups. Helen Jones, a whip between 2008-2010, recalls overhearing plotters against Gordon Brown in Parliament’s tearooms and reporting them to her chief whip.

“Too often, whips hide themselves in offices. You need to walk around the place, talk to people and see what’s going on," she says.

Jacqui Smith served as chief whip during the height of tensions between so-called Blairites and Brownites on the Labour benches. In late summer 2006, Tom Watson and three other West Midland MPs hatched what became known as the “curry house conspiracy” to install Brown as PM.

Watson resigned as defence minister after a letter calling for Tony Blair to quit was leaked to the press. The events set in train Blair’s departure from No 10 the following year.

“It was very disruptive, not least because those two sides were manifest in the whips’ office,” recalls Smith of the factional rows. “Up to the point of the attempted coup – the curry plot – there was a very strong esprit de corps in the whips’ office. It was never quite the same afterwards.”

Smith, who had “difficult” conversations with Watson and others, adds: “I sometimes say about my time as chief whip that I was very pleased that I never lost a vote, but I did lose a prime minister.”

Three government whips are officially members of Her Majesty’s Household. At the state opening of parliament, they travel to Buckingham Palace carrying ceremonial white staves. One of them – the vice-chamberlain – is kept as a hostage until the Queen's safe return. 

A key position is known as the pairing whip. They oversee informal arrangements between MPs from opposing parties who agree not to vote in a particular division, thereby cancelling each other out. Controversially, the Tories breached short-term pairing arrangements during a crunch Brexit vote in July 2018. The party insisted that Brandon Lewis had been asked to vote in error when he was paired with Jo Swinson, who had recently given birth. 

During a three-line whip, imposed during votes of the most significant political importance, pairing is not allowed and rebellions could lead to MPs losing the party whip altogether.

If the two whips’ offices agree on something, they manage the business so that any proper objection to it is avoided

Steve Bassam, who served as Labour chief whip in the Lords in government and opposition, asked his team to update him before a vote on a three-line whip in the Upper Chamber.

In his last meeting, a whip said they had been unable to locate a peer for a number of weeks. The chief looked on sagaciously. “Well, if you do get through to him, I’d really appreciate you letting me know,” he said. “After all, he’s been dead for six months.”

The government and opposition whips’ offices work together to discuss the upcoming parliamentary business through what is referred to as the usual channels. Once signed off, the hostilities can resume, though the bond between the opposing sides is said to be very strong.

“You can’t ever entirely trust somebody, but I would say some of the Labour whips that I dealt with both in opposition and then in government are people that I still get on extremely well with,” says an ex-Tory whip.

Some MPs believe the ‘usual channels’ system results in backbenchers losing out. “If the two whips’ offices agree on something, they manage the business so that any proper objection to it is avoided. That’s bad,” says Peter Bone.

Until the turn of the century, whips would be responsible for their own appointments. Former Tory MP Sir Michael Neubert was walking across St James’s Park when a senior whip spotted him, took him by the arm and held him in a vice-like grip. “Don’t move,” the whip said. Neubert realised he was being invited to join the government whips’ office, where he served from 1983-88. 

The thing that was most important is knowing that they were all watertight on not letting out secrets

One ex-senior Conservative whip says they would have preferred to retain the responsibility of appointing whips. “You had people put in who you were a bit doubtful of,” they say. 

“The thing that was most important is knowing that they were all watertight on not letting out secrets,” they continue. “If the business wasn’t going to go through, we don’t want that leaking. It might get others to go into the opposition’s hands.”

Typically, the deputy chief whip runs the daily meetings, which take place in the relevant whips’ office before the start of business in the Chamber. There is a weekly overall government whips meeting in No 9 Downing St led by the chief, who will also sit in on Cabinet and other key engagements with the prime minister. 

“The chief whip is more like the officer in charge... the deputy does all the nitty gritty. They are also more likely to deal with discipline,” says one former deputy chief whip.

The private secretary to the government chief whip, a civil servant, is a key interlocutor between the party in power and the opposition, acting as a non-partisan deal broker. “A chief whip will only be as good as his or her support team,” says Steve Bassam.

The whips’ office, renowned for its sense of camaraderie and humour, has been seen as a gateway to ministerial life for its grounding in the functioning of Parliament (while technically a ministerial post, some whips claim they are wrongly seen as “second-class”). Among those to pass through the whips’ office was Sir John Major, the former prime minister. 

It was the endeavours of whips during the mid to late 20th Century that gained them notoriety. 

When Jack Profumo, a newly-elected MP, voted against Neville Chamberlain’s government at the Norway debate of May 1940, he was confronted by an irate Conservative chief whip, David Margesson, who called him an "utterly contemptible little shit".

"On every morning that you wake up for the rest of your life, you will be ashamed of what you did last night," said Margesson.

Whips were there for discipline and my goodness me did they discipline you

After 1945, the whips’ offices were largely made up of ex-military MPs who had served in the war. On the Labour side, there were also a number of formidable former trade union officials who were used to installing order. During his first encounter with Walter Harrison, Labour’s deputy chief whip, Jack Straw, elected in 1979, was pushed against a wall and had his testicles grabbed. When he asked what he had done wrong, Harrison replied: “Nowt, but think what I'd do if you crossed me.”

Tory backbencher Sir Bill Cash, who was elected in 1984, says the Tory whips’ office was “run like a military operation and you were expected to behave accordingly”. Michael Dobbs, the Tory peer and former political adviser to Margaret Thatcher, adds: "Whips were there for discipline and my goodness me did they discipline you."

The antics of whips during this period helped inspire the character Francis Urquhart, whose signature phrase, “You might think that, I couldn't possibly comment”, has become part of British political folklore. The character’s initials – F U – were a response to Thatcher, who had sacked Dobbs as a special adviser in 1987.

Whips, who were referred to as ‘The Broederbond’ or the ‘Geheime Staatspolizei’ (Gestapo), would go to extreme lengths to ensure their MPs turned up to vote. Lord Howie, a former whip under Harold Wilson in the mid-1960s, recalled a time when a Tory and Labour MP, both of whom had just had heart attacks, were brought onto the parliamentary estate in ambulances.

“We were obliged by the nature of the majority to bring people into Parliament to vote who were at death’s door. For all intents and purposes, we pushed them through the door,” he told the BBC in 1995. “I think we killed three members towards the end of that first period.”  

Similar stories emerged during Jim Callaghan’s government from 1976-1979, which were the subject of James Graham’s landmark play, This House. The Labour party had what were known as bogtrotters, two people who would run around the toilets of Parliament and check under the doors to see if anyone was ill inside. They would then jump up to see who it was: if it was one of their own, they would take them out, if it was not, they would leave them in place. 

I think we killed three members towards the end of that first period.  

The mystique that surrounded them grew when it emerged that Tory whips had been keeping a black book of incendiary information on their colleagues. As for what was included, Tim Fortescue, a whip from 1970-73, told the journalist Michael Cockerell in 1995: “Scandalous stories I suppose, which possibly are not at all accurate.”

This information could then be used at a later date to ensure an MP carried out the wishes of the Government, even if the suggestion of information being shared was “very mild”, said Fortescue.

Disturbingly, Fortescue added: “Anyone with any sense who was in trouble would come to the whips and tell them the truth. They would say, ‘I am in a jam, can you help?’

“It might be debt, it might be a scandal involving small boys or any kind of scandal which a member seemed likely to be mixed up in, they would come and ask if we could help, and if we could, we did. We would do everything we could, because we would store up brownie points.

"That sounds a pretty nasty reason, but it’s one of the reasons that if we could get a chap out of trouble, then he would do as we ask forever more.”

These words, which resurfaced in 2014, prompted widespread concern that whips had covered up for paedophile MPs.

Modern day whips stress that the black book is a relic of the past, while others believe it was a made-up tool to scare MPs into obedience.

“We would share information about colleagues, but it would not go outside of that room. Sometimes it would be that somebody’s partner wasn’t very well or something wasn’t going well at home,” says a long-serving ex-Tory whip. “But it was important information to ensure that we didn’t accuse someone of not pulling their weight, as there may be a good reason – there normally is.” 

What you’re essentially doing is a human resources and pastoral job, with a bunch of highly-opinionated, very independent, not easily managed people

This code of silence is seen as a pivotal aspect of life of a whip, particularly for a certain generation. The House contacted all living former Tory chief whips during the Conservative governments from 1979-1997. All turned down the opportunity to speak.

Broadcaster and ex-MP Gyles Brandreth drew the ire of colleagues in his book, ‘Breaking the Code’, in which he set out his experiences in the Tory whips’ office. Tim Renton, the former chief whip from 1989-1990, wrote a book on the role, history and black arts of parliamentary whipping.

In rejecting the opportunity to speak, one former chief wrote to me: 

Being Chief Whip was one of the most exciting and fun things I have ever done in Parliament and anecdotes there are a plenty. 

However a Chief Whip, especially in the Conservative Party, is a bit of a father confessor and we deal with a lot of personal problems and not just the usual myths of whipping and throwing people off the roof.

Therefore Chief Whips would never be trusted by our flocks if they thought that at some future date a Chief would spill the beans and they might be revealed however tangentially.

There has only ever been one Conservative Chief Whip who wrote a book and revealed whipping information. He has never been invited to any Whips’ function since.

I will leave you to figure out who that is.

Curiously Lord Dobbs has not had such experiences, despite depicting a murderous and power-hungry chief whip as his central character in House of Cards.

“For thirty years I have been dragged around constituencies by people who want to hear more; I’ve had chief whips asking me to sign copies of their House of Cards; I’ve even had three chief whips turning round to me and quoting Francis Urquhart’s words,” he tells me.

“It is silly little things like that which have given me a huge amount of pleasure. I don’t know anybody who has refused to have anything to do with me because I wrote that book - entirely the opposite. It has kept my political contacts strong for more than three decades.”

During the rebellions over Maastricht in the early 1990s, Conservative whips pursued at times hostile tactics.

MPs claimed that whips kept a so-called shitlist of backbenchers who were so incalcitrant on the issue of Europe that they should be ignored and not bothered with. At their annual dinner, whips would nominate an overall Commons 'shit of the year' as part of their festivities.

Sir Bill Cash was the leader of the eurosceptic resistance on Maastricht. He would meet the chief Richard Ryder at the whips’ base on 12 Downing Street (today they meet in the Cabinet Office at No 9 and still reside in offices just off the Commons Chamber). 

“I remember [Richard] very distinctly on one occasion saying to me, ‘Look, Bill, you’ve got your job to do and I’ve got mine’. I thought that summed up the whole of the whipping operation and the role of the whips extremely well,” recalls Cash.

Some of the stuff that went on twenty years ago would undoubtedly be referred to as bullying

However, Cash did have a run-in with David Lightbown, a notoriously bruising member of the whips’ office who took great pride in enforcing his will on colleagues.

“He did try it once on me by making some what he would call threatening remarks. It was like water of a duck’s back,” he says. 

In a letter to The Times, Tory MP Sir Nicholas Fairbairn said: “I am appalled at numerous reports that the whips saw fit to threaten to expose extra-marital conduct by backbench colleagues, in order to persuade them to abandon their consciences."

Peter Bone, who says he has been sworn at by "drunk" whips in his fifteen years as an MP, says: “Some of the stuff that went on twenty years ago would undoubtedly be referred to as bullying.”

The proliferation of social media and progressions in social attitudes mean the cajoling of old would no longer fly in an age where reputations can be damaged at the click of a button. 

“Lots of the things that allegedly happened in the past, I don’t think you would get away with them now. We have a different view on how you would deal with certain areas that means you simply couldn’t operate in the way it is alleged people operated,” says Mark Harper.

To this day, whips will talk of the importance of ‘persuasion’ in winning over colleagues. However, this now revolves around convincing MPs of the arguments, either personally or by putting them in front of the relevant ministers or experts who may assuage their concerns.

The culture in the whips’ office died out as more women entered Parliament. “It has ceased to be so much of a man’s club,” says a former deputy chief whip quoted earlier in this article.

Lord Dobbs believes part of the dilution of whips’ power comes down to the nature of parliamentary debate, and the loss of the “ideological rigour” of the 80s.

Nowadays, Dobbs says: “It’s all about dealing with problems that arise and much less about long-term objectives. It is much more about short-term crisis management.”

So, without the more forceful tools at your disposal, how can you be an effective whip?

A former senior Tory whip says: "While one day you may need them to vote, you have to be very careful what you do to them in terms of stick, because you’ll need them the next day for another vote, and if you’ve annoyed them too much, then they won’t be there.”

Keith Simpson, the former Conservative MP, was an opposition whip from 1999-2001. He would use “the whisky bottle” more than any other means of convincing members of his flock. “I remember with one of the very senior people who was often minded not to vote with the Conservatives, I used to invite him into the whips’ office after six and we would sit and have a whisky,” recalls Simpson.

“I would genuinely get him talking about what it was like when he was first elected. Often, at the end of it, not every time, he would then say, ‘Well, dear boy, I was going to vote against the Conservatives on this, but I will abstain. How’s that?’”

Whips can’t oblige MPs to do and say things which they ultimately believe is of national interest

Helen Jones explains: “It was tailored to the individual, and it was much more about persuasion than threats.” She adds: “Often, you’re actually calling on their party loyalty if they don’t want to vote for something.” Jones would also contact their friends in Parliament as a way of convincing any wavering MPs.

Some MPs are, of course, beyond convincing. One such member was Jeremy Corbyn, who voted against the Labour government hundreds of times. Jacqui Smith recalls: “Frankly most of the time we just wrote him off as somebody who wasn’t really bothered about party loyalty or loyalty to the Government, certainly. We were wasting our time. So if we thought we were facing a rebellion we focused on people we thought were willing to listen.”

Julian Smith, chief whip under Theresa May, would work weekends seeking to lobby MPs into supporting the prime minister’s withdrawal agreement. He was ultimately unsuccessful in his endeavour, showing the limitation of whips’ power. Sir Bill Cash explains: “This is where whips have a threshold. They can’t oblige MPs to do and say things which they ultimately believe is of national interest.”

Alongside gentle but firm persuasion, whips still maintain discipline. They become experts in reading the Order Paper – the parliamentary agenda – and must ensure their flock turn up for votes on time. A failure to do so could see complacency feed into the parliamentary party and effect subsequent, more important divisions.

To do this means whips must not get caught up in the day-to-day volatility of politics. Nick Brown, Labour’s long-serving chief whip, says to his team: “We don’t do policy, we do process.”

Helen Jones recalls a meeting after Hazel Blears’s resignation from the Cabinet in June 2009. “The air went blue around the table. The next minute, we picked up with the day’s business and carried on,” she says. 

For whips and particularly chief whips, often a large part of their role is pastoral. Given they have literally hundreds of colleagues, at any one time some might be experiencing physical illness, mental health problems, a marriage breakdown, or a family bereavement. The whips’ office can provide support. 

“Frankly, what you’re essentially doing is a human resources/pastoral/leadership job, with a bunch of highly-opinionated, very independent, not easily managed people. Therefore, what you really need are relationship skills, political skills in a broader sense and personal skills to be able to do it well,” says Jacqui Smith.

The whip is about about whipping in at the back of hounds. It’s no good if you’ve got that pack dispersed around all corners of the country

The punitive actions of whips in recent weeks – removing Theresa Villiers from the ISC as an example – have got tongues wagging.

Though the Hybrid Parliament is no more, many MPs remain at home, and the usual means of gathering information, checking in with your flock and overseeing party morale have changed entirely.

Whips have, however, shown themselves to be adaptable. The days of black books, shitlists and physical abuse have long gone. In their place is a more collegiate and sensitive approach to the key task presented to them.

Their challenge now is to find a means of doing that in a time of social distancing and shielding.

A Tory backbencher concludes: “The whip is about about whipping in at the back of hounds. It’s no good if you’ve got that pack dispersed around all corners of the country. You want them in one place.”

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