Since the EU referendum, politics has moved faster than a Grand Prix. Careers have crashed, burnt or roared through on the inside. Everything is in such flux that even the calendar is confused. In July, May arrived in Downing Street.
Amid this chaos we decided to tackle a subject that even in the quietest of political periods has proved impossible. Why? Because the people we were after were party whips – a group of politicians defined by what they don’t do: give interviews to journalists. Most people know what the Prime Minister’s role is, what a backbencher is and what the Speaker does – but the whips?
We wanted to find out because in a Parliament where the Government of the day has a majority of only 12, these people are incredibly important. What we did know was that they are Parliament’s party managers, keeping the process of legislation moving, organising the winning of votes and disciplining rebel MPs. But their code dictates that they never talk about how they do it.
Despite that, and at an unprecedentedly febrile political time when you’d expect their doors to be even more firmly shut, we persuaded Labour Chief Whip Dame Rosie Winterton and Conservative Deputy Chief Whip Anne Milton to let us in on the secret – showing just how much today’s whips worry that the public doesn’t understand their role. In September, when Parliament returns after the summer recess, these two key players face the most difficult whipping operation in decades. They insist that to make it work, each will be far more a cocktail of HR manager, social worker, intelligence gatherer and mentor than the thuggish type of legend.
Their eagerness to talk down the menace of the “silent enforcer” reputation is because for decades such an image was true. The dragging in of dying MPs to make up the numbers or the bullying of votes from reluctant backbenchers was certainly not rare. Jack Straw tells of the time when 1970s and 80s Labour whip Walter Harrison grabbed him in a crucial place and got him to stop talking with a not so gentle squeeze. No Tory MP in the House of Commons in 1992 remembers the whipping of the Maastricht votes without wincing. Perhaps the oddest fact we’ve discovered concerns the Labour whips’ office of the Callaghan government of 1974–9, which had no overall majority. Former whip Lord Snape tells us how junior whips were sent out armed with a special metal hook to “flush out” any MPs avoiding a vote by hiding in a toilet. The hook was used to open any “engaged” cubicle they suspected was occupied by one of their reluctant MPs. Lord Snape tells us it seemed “an odd step on the road to socialism”.
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All of these tales, however, seem to be ancient history. In the world of social media and 24-hour news, such tactics don’t work. Former Labour Home Secretary and Chief Whip Jacqui Smith says, “You can’t squeeze someone by the ‘agendas’ any more because by the time the pain’s subsided it’ll be all over Twitter.” Now the focus is on persuasion, appeals to loyalty and recognising that MPs today seem much more minded to vote against their own party, or abstain, if they believe it’s the right thing to do. Oddly, the more independent MPs are, the less effective whips wielding sticks seem to be.
To assume that “enforcing” is all that whips do is a huge mistake. The whips organise and structure the way that legislation moves through Parliament to become law. This is the true power of the whips – keeping the show on the road. To do that, whips of one party talk regularly to the whips of other parties, which creates surprising bonds of loyalty and mutual understanding between people whom the public might expect to loathe each other.
The phrase talking to your enemies via “the usual channels” refers directly to the communication between whips of different parties, and there’s lots of it. In fact, if that falls apart it has the deepest of impacts on politics as a whole. The profound tension between Labour MPs and their current leadership, just about managed by the whips, is no consolation to the Conservatives. No government whip revels in a weak opposition, since it means that the day-to-day business of making Parliament work is much harder. But this may be exactly what MPs return to in the autumn.
As a political species the ideal whip, it seems, is tough, aggressive, efficient – even deadly; and for years, being male was also a requirement. Indeed, former Conservative Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell admits that in the whips’ office of the 1990s the idea of a woman doing the job was “unthinkable”. When he returned to Parliament and subsequently ran the whips’ office in 2012, he spotted talent in Anne Milton and recruited her.
Many of the men we spoke to say that women make the best whips, though Theresa May, only the second woman to become Prime Minister, has appointed Gavin Williamson as her new chief whip.
Nonetheless, many of the women we spoke to hint at why they are good at the job: they are matriarchs who herd their charges with care and persuasion, but are respected and not to be crossed. Our two leading female whips and one of their predecessors tell me quite candidly that they are tough but not threatening. However, when I ask them if they are ever genuinely scary, they laugh. It’s meant to be disarming, but despite their charming smiles this is the most terrifying moment of our time together. This trait might just prove useful in the turbulent months ahead.
Power of the Whips: the Silent Enforcers, Sunday 1.30pm Radio 4