Book review: How to be a government whip

Written by Keith Simpson on 17 May 2016 in Culture

Helen Jones may not have enjoyed being a Labour whip, but she provides a lively account of life in the office.

There are many myths and exaggerations about the history, role and personnel of Parliamentary Whips.  One was that Whips never published their memoirs and certainly never kept diaries.  The former Conservative MP Gyles Brandreth appeared to defy tradition by publishing his diaries as a whip in the dying days of the Major government.  Aptly entitled “Breaking the Code”.

Many former whips, including Labour, were horrified that the traditions and secrets of the office had been broken.   It was not for nothing that parliamentary whips frequently refer to themselves collectively as the “Geheime Staats polizei” or the “Broederbond”. 

In fact over the past one hundred and fifty years many whips have published memoirs and diaries, although some are justifiably obscure.

Now the Labour MP Helen Jones has written “How to be a Government Whip” based upon her experiences in the office from October 2008 to May 2010.  This was in the dying months of the Brown government, and like any memoirs/diaries of the office has to be seen in time and context.

Your reviewer served as a Conservative Whip 1990-2001 but that was in opposition in a Parliament with a totally overwhelming Labour majority.  Context was different but many of the details of the job and life have a continuity.

Helen Jones has been the Labour MP for Warrington North since 1997, with experience in education, law and local policies.  Andrew Roth of The Guardian described her as an “intelligent, battle hardened left wing solicitor built into the Labour machine”.  That comes through very strongly in this book

Helen Jones was not a Blairite and under his government was known to vote against some legislation.  Her antipathy to Blairites comes through vividly in this book.  She refers to those mainly Blairite politicos who were fast-tracked from being Spads into safe seats and then ministerial office as “Princes and Princesses” and names names of those whom she also regarded as disloyal such as James Purnell and Hazel Blears.

She is north country Labour with a single minded desire to represent working people in her constituency and maintain a Labour government.  She dislikes the metropolitan elite who believe politics is all about talking and think tanks, but equally castigates “Labour MPs in Parliaments before 2010 who had voted against the government more times than David Cameron”. Sadly there are no details or observations on Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

This is a valuable account of life as a government whip in an increasingly beleagued Brown government.  Helen Jones comes across as hard working, dedicated, loyal and trustworthy.   As a new whip she watches and learns and notes the mantra of Nick Brown, the Chief Whip, “We don’t do policy, we do process”.

Here she emphasises the importance of Whips professionalism.  The priority is always “to make a House” and get government business through.  The rest is secondary including the health and ambitions of Whips.

Whips have to understand the Order Paper, how to count and how to persuade colleagues to turn up on time and vote with the government. She spends a lot of time analysing different groups on the back benches from rebels through to unquestioning loyalists.  Ministers can be divided into those who “go native” and are at the beck and call of their civil servants or who become very pompous and superior.

The Whips office is very collegiate, and frequently members feel it is them against their own Party.  Loyalty is to the Chief and the Prime Minister. 

All debates and even doubts remain inside the Office. But, and here Helen Jones could do with some wider perspective, the Whips are crucial when there is a leadership crisis - the Conservative Chief Whip David Margesson in May 1940 and the Conservative Chief Whip David Maclean in the IDS leadership crisis in 2003.

The kind of rather brutal behaviour of Whips, epitomised by Francis Urquhart in House of Cards by Michael Dobbs and was very much the macho atmosphere of Conservative and Labour Whips offices from the early 1920s to the late 1990s.  Culture and the introduction of women did make a difference.

In those days whips kept a “dirt book” on troublesome backbenchers and ruthlessly bullied and bribed their colleagues.  It is a pity that Helen Jones didn’t at least mention in passing the brilliant play “This House” (2012) by James Graham.  Based upon historical fact, real characters and some literary license it views the struggles of the Callaghan government through the eyes of the Labour and Conservative Whips offices.

So how did Helen Jones and her fellow whips “maintain a House?”  By continually observing, monitoring and shepherding their flock – literally , as whips have a list of MPs to look after as well as one or two government departments.

Today Whips have limited patronage as membership of select committees is by election and promise of a preferment begins to wane in the fag end of a Parliament or Government.  Threats of taking away “the whip” is drastic and usually counter-productive.

A lot is by negotiation as she shows, including the careful allocation of offices, membership of overseas delegations, careful slipping or alternatively membership of some lengthy and tedious Bill Committee.

I’m not sure Helen Jones really enjoyed being a whip – she is almost permanently tired and in the case of most MPs who serve in the office, becomes very cynical about the behaviour and motivation of colleagues.

But this is a well written, lively account of life in the office and adds to the literature of the Brown government, despite the fact that Helen’s advice is “one thing you should never do is to read political books”.


Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland

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