The waning power of the whips

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 25 August 2011 in Diary
Since their zenith in the 90s, the whips have lost many of their most powerful bargaining tools. But, as James Clayton explains, some of the 2010 intake of MPs are still keen to do as they're told

The Whips Office is probably the most mysterious and intriguing office in Westminster - the place where secrets are kept and bodies buried. There are dozens of idioms attached to it - ‘A meeting without coffee’, ‘Put a bit of stick about’, ‘the black book’ or ‘you might well think that, I couldn’t possibly comment’.

Yes Minister and House of Cards popularised the image of the Conservative Whips Office as a clandestine operation and the Chief Whip himself as the arch plotter, the man who held the real power in government.

Certainly during Major’s premiership this was, at least in part, true. A government is nothing if it can’t push its agenda through the legislature and this would have been impossible without an extremely powerful Whips Office. Every controversial vote was an immense tussle and every trick in the book was used to keep MPs in line.

But steadily many of the traditional tactics that Whips used in 90s have been eroded.

Patronage has been the traditional way of keeping ambitious backbenchers quiet. The promise, or at least the suggestion, of a job can be enough to get an MP through the right lobby. Before 2010 Whips had the power to choose chairmen of select committees, giving them a huge amount of leverage with backbenchers, many of whom treat these quasi-sinecures as hallowed positions.  However, last year the chairman of select committees were chosen, for the first time, by MPs themselves - robbing the Whips of a valuable bargaining tool.

Most people assume that MPs who bow to the party whip improve their chances of high office. But is this really true? Many of the most respected and well known MPs have been pretty relaxed when it comes to toeing the party line, and have developed a media profile by doing so. Ken Clarke was one of the most rebellious MPs during Cameron’s leadership in opposition and it didn’t do him any harm at all. Equally, insubordinate MPs can be given government jobs to simply keep them quiet (I can think of a few who are in their current positions for this very reason).

An effective tactic used by the Whips (which worked particularly well for those MPs with narrow majorities) was, at least the threat of, reducing party funding from a rebel’s constituency.  There’s only a finite amount of party resources, so why waste them on a mutineer?  But this threat has softened in recent years. After the 2010 election many candidates will baulk at taking party money. After all – where’s it coming from? The Ashcroft millions were used against many candidates by Labour and the Lib Dems during the last election and many candidates, like Antony Calvert, have been able to raise considerable amounts of money independently. Increasingly electoral rules are being tightened so that only limited amounts can be spent in an electoral period anyway.

The black book, which is actually blue according to current government chief whip Patrick McLoughlin, is the ever present threat that lurks over an MP’s heads. Most MPs have no idea whether it’s literal or figurative, which helps to fuel its mythology. But even if it did exist, do whips really go around blackmailing their colleagues with salacious tit bits? In a world where alleged negative briefing by Gordon Brown and Ed Balls has severely damaged the reputations of both it would take a brave whip  to get involved in such a strategy.

Traditionally one of the roles of whips was to unearth and nurture talent (and still is to a certain extent) which is one of the reasons the office has often been referred to as the human resources department of the major parties.  But with an increasingly large office in No 10 and 70 or so special advisors the PM isn’t short of advice on who the rising stars in the party are. Keeping your nose clean isn’t necessarily a sign of potential.

One of the key shifts of power since the 90s was in 2001 when the government whips were booted out of their luxurious pad at No 12 Downing Street, with Alastair Campbell’s press team installing themselves in the premises. Media relations had trumped the art of parliamentary discipline. In the 90s the key figure in government had been Francis Urquhart. In the noughties it was Malcolm Tucker.

So post-2010 where is the Conservative Whips office? Well, though many of the weapons in the whips’ arsenal have been decommissioned, they still have an ace up their sleeve. For the first time in a generation the Conservative Party is packed with new blood - young and ambitious.  These MPs are ready and willing to serve and are fairly confident that a black mark against their name will jeopardise their careers. With so much competition around most have clocked that playing the talented rebel card probably won’t work (at least won’t work in the short term) and dutifully follow the sheepdog. The whips might not be able make ‘em jump as high as they used to but they still know how to get what they want.

Tags: Chief whip, Francis Urquhart, House of Cards, Malcolm Tucker, Patrick mcloughlin, Sir John Major, Whips Office, Yes Minister

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