Conservative MP Jane Hunt was mocked online this week for going on Sky News and describing her party’s whips as “welfare officers”. The interview came hours after William Wragg, the chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, spoke out about allegations of blackmail from the whips.
“It is, of course, the duty of the government whips’ office to secure the government’s business in the House of Commons,” Wragg said. “However, it is not their function to breach the ministerial code in threatening to withdraw investment from members of parliaments’ constituencies which are funded from the public purse.”
On the same day, the recent defector to the Labour Party, Christian Wakeford, revealed that Tory whips had threatened to pull funding for a new school in his constituency if he “did not vote in one particular way”.
In this context, Hunt’s comments do seem quite preposterous; an uneasy defence of something clearly beyond the pale. The problem, however, is that she wasn’t technically wrong. A party’s whips can and often do act as mostly benevolent welfare officers, helping out MPs with professional and personal matters. Depending on the day or the parliamentarian, they can be purveyors of sticks, carrots, or both.
This should hardly be a surprise; House of Cards, which tells the story of a disgruntled whip’s quest for power, came out as a book in 1989, a BBC series a year later, and a hit Netflix show in 2013. Whips have been present in popular culture for some time – and are rarely portrayed as agents for good.
If anything, the theatrics have often been part of the fun. To pick one example out of many, Gyles Brandreth once wrote in his political memoir: “The whips gave a short speech to the new crop of parliamentarians, explaining just what was expected of them, including that ‘when there is a three-line whip you will be here to vote – unless you can produce a doctor’s certificate (pause) showing you are dead.’”
More recently, the MP Michael Fabricant tweeted: “If I reported every time I had been threatened by a Whip or if a Whip reported every time I had threatened them, the police wouldn’t have any time to conduct any other police work!”
Still, Wragg and Wakeford’s allegations remained shocking; joking about the deviousness of politicians is one thing, realising dark things really are happening down the corridors of power is another. Can anything be done about it?
After all, this isn’t even the first time that stories of blackmail have become public. Back in 2001, George Monbiot wrote about Tess Kingham, a Labour MP who had been elected in 1997. “When she refused to vote for cuts in disability benefits, Labour whips threatened that the government could withdraw resources from her constituency,” he revealed. “She complained to one of the papers. In response, the whips threatened to expose her private life in the tabloids.” Kingham stood down at the following election.
How have things not changed since then? Parliament has become a (somewhat) more professional workplace over the past 20 years; it seems incredible that the dark arts of the whips are yet to be curtailed.
The answer is a complicated one, because whips are only the tip of the iceberg. Their coercive ways are symptomatic of many of the dysfunctions at the heart of British politics.
Whips can and do intrude on the personal lives of the MPs they are in charge of, because the personal lives of MPs – from marital issues and drinking problems to young children and personality defects – often influence their work, and how good they are at it.
Similarly, whips can choose to make or break the careers of ambitious backbenchers because there are few formal ways in which those ambitious backbenchers can climb the greasy pole, making patronage a must.
They can behave poorly if they personally decide to because much of life in Westminster is not codified, and instead relies on individuals doing the right, or at the very least the most palatable, thing. They can offer the carrot and the stick because, for the most part, there is no one else keeping MPs in check outside of election time.
In short, whips are an integral part of a system that is itself highly dysfunctional. They act the way they do because the current set-up encourages and often requires them to.
None of this means that whips should not be held accountable. Wragg was right to speak up, and not all traditions must be kept for their own sake. As the expenses scandal showed, things are often fine until they aren’t.
Still, successfully fixing the whips’ office would mean changing the way British politics works in quite a fundamental way. Is Westminster ready for it? After years of constant strife, endless stories of bullying and sexual assault, and personal feuds spinning out of control – can it afford not to be?