The Discreet Art of the Flogging: Where are the Lines for Parliament’s Enforcers? | lower house
Allegations this week that party whips have tried to blackmail MPs to protect Boris Johnson have some clutching their beads in mock horror – and others are genuinely troubled by what they see as a mix of bribery and bullying that is taking place may require a police investigation.
The role of a party that has lashed out over the decades has been to secure government affairs and protect the prime minister. They are portrayed as unsung heroes of democracy, necessary as sewers to civilization.
In the job description, there is no precise set of rules as to what is taboo. As in most areas of life, persuasion can take many forms, from inferior tutelage to flattery; a dirty look; intimidation, mainly verbal; or, even more pleasantly, permission to go on a two-week fact-finding tour with the Parliamentary Association of Britain and Bali. It is fairly routine for MPs to be reminded of the pending Link Road program in their constituency before a vote.
But a former Chief Whip looking at the current controversy claims the dividing line to legitimate conviction is nonetheless clear. “Yes to threats of promotion and honors. No to abuse of public money and privacy.” Tory MPs who took the floor on Thursday claimed the threats, including withholding investment in a school, fell into the latter category. No. 10 insisted: “We are not aware of any evidence that clearly supports serious allegations. If there is any evidence to support these claims, we would examine them very carefully.”
It is even more controversial when MPs’ private lives are drawn into the discussion. In the past, the Whips’ interest in MPs’ private lives has been largely pastoral – to ensure harmful information about their flock does not leak to the public. But even privileged information of this kind—about drunkenness, infidelity, and indiscretions—can be leaked to the press or threatened with disclosure.
Andrew Mitchell, a former Chief Whip, reveals in his recent memoir Beyond a Fringe that not only did Tory Whips keep a notebook of all sorts of indiscretions, but that of course this was sent to John Major, the Prime Minister – and a former Whip himself.
In a 1995 BBC documentary, Westminster’s Secret Service, Tim Fortescue, a whip under Ted Heath between 1970 and 1973, stated: “Anyone of any mind who was in trouble came to the whips and told them the truth and said now: I’m in a bind, can you help? It could be debt, it could be … a scandal involving little boys, or any scandal.
“And we’d do whatever we can because we’d get brownie points … and if I mean, that sounds like a pretty, pretty nasty reason, but it’s one of the reasons, because if we could get a guy out of trouble.” , then he would do as we ask for more and more.”
But just as a whip likes nothing more than an MP with gratitude, they fear nothing more than an MP with no sense of obligation. Mitchell recounts how he once sought the voice of a pro-European, Sir Peter Tapsell, only for the larger-than-life MP to turn on him and say: ‘Look, Andrew, there is nothing I want from your office. I’m rich – very rich – I’m already a knight and I certainly have no wish to be a member of this deranged government. All I want is my dead son back, and there’s nothing you can do about that.”
For some MPs, being a whipman is a profession, a calling, a look around corners and a flair for personalities. The old cliche about the Labor whip office was that it was staffed with many working-class MPs who came from a union background and provided the votes needed for policies being conceived by a cabinet formed by Balliol. In the Tory whip office, on the other hand, the style is a mix of a military background and an academy for quick MPs at the top of government.
Between the offices of the two whips, there is also an esprit de corps across enemy lines – born of respect for their shared task of tending their wayward flock through divisional lobbies.
Crucial to the success of a flogging operation is the bond of trust between the prime minister and the chief whipper. A former Whip said: “It’s important that you can go to the Prime Minister and say ‘this isn’t going to work’ and then be taken seriously.”
Stanley Baldwin did, in fact, write an emotional letter to his Chief Whip, David Margesson, telling him that “there is no relation between men so close as that of a Prime Minister and his Chief Whip.”
In reality, that’s not always true. Martin Redmayne, chief whip during the Profumo affair, thought Harold Macmillan should resign – and constructed Douglas Home as his successor.
Tim Renton was an odd choice as Margaret Thatcher’s chief whip. In 1989 he was an ally of Sir Geoffrey Howe, pro-European, urban and socially liberal – three things she had come to hate. After her fall, she accused him of having assessed her chances in a second ballot as “typically discouraging”. He was one of those she had in mind when she spoke of “betrayal with a smile on her face”. Renton maintained that in leadership competitions, the whip office must be neutral, a tradition that is currently lost.
Regardless of whether MPs are now more independent – for which there is conflicting evidence – the consensus is that the era of the macho whip is over. Labor has had three female chief whips in recent years, reflecting a broader shift in political culture.
If the whips under Chief Whip Mark Spencer are found to have crossed the mark and even a record has been made, it will be an extraordinary moment, not just for Boris Johnson but for the future of Parliament.