It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it


"If you understand them well, your advice will be better directed," said a former Tory whip in Michael Cockerell's engagingly murky account of political arm-bending, Westminster's Secret Service (BBC2). He was explaining why the whips needed to know every detail of their charges' private lives, but the suggestion of tender concern sat a little uneasily with the facts - the mild avuncularity brought to mind a protection racketeer, offering his services in Risk Dispersal Analysis. In truth the whips aren't the kindly uncles of the party, they're its Godfathers, and when they disperse charity it is in the sure and certain knowledge that the debt will one day be called in.

Some of those debts are clearly sizeable ones. Tim Fortescue, an urbane ex-whip, argued that the Whips' Office could be useful to errant MPs, those who found themselves in debt or "scandals with small boys". Did he really mean to say that members of the Government would make themselves accessories to the sexual abuse of minors? Surely not. Well, not as long as they had a safe working majority anyway. Cockerell didn't press him on the point. He had already secured the golden quote, when Fortescue winked slyly at the fact that the Tories had had a woman leader but no female whips. Do you really mean to say that the whips are more important than the Prime Minister, asked Cockerell. "You said it, I didn't say it," Fortescue replied, with an Urquhart twinkle.

Much of this, it was clear, is clubbish bravado, a bogeyman pantomime designed to fleece the backbench sheep who have to be herded through the right lobby at the right time. The fear that the whips may know about that regrettable, and of course solitary, lapse at Brighton in 1989 helps to speed them on their way. Mystique is essential for the trick to work - current Tory whips weren't talking and while Labour whips had allowed Cockerell to film them at work, the liberty resulted in scenes that were as grittily revealing as a corporate video. For a hint at the truth you had to listen to ex-whips (all filmed in conspiratorial gloom) and look closely at the old boy reunions, sniggering encounters with more than a whiff of the sixth form about them. A combination of ruthlessness and arrested development seems to be indispensable - a Labour whip recalled marking down recalcitrant MPs with brown pencil because they were "shits", while at the Tory Whips' Dinner one of the chief entertainments is drawing up lists of disliked MPs and voting for the "shit of the year".

Apparently Tony Blair is remodelling the Labour Whips' Office on Tory lines - as a nursery for high-flyers, a Machiavellian Montessori in which to learn the secret torture-grips of government. Instead of those with a modest ambition to bully you will get bullies with big ambitions. It may be tactically wise but you wonder what it will do to the general complexion of government. I would have thought the last few years showed that there might be sound reasons for maintaining a distinction between the generals and the thugs.

The first episode of The Vet (BBC1) was at pains to distance itself from its somewhat anodyne predecessors in the cowpat tradition. "Shall I put him in the oven for dinner?" asks our hero, holding his daughter's pet rabbit. Another character is discovered watching EastEnders, presumably dreaming wistfully of delivery pizzas and late-night groceries. The storyline was equally uncosy - a tale of rural bankruptcy, with suicide or a shotgun massacre sitting hopefully in the high branches. Both were frightened off by the human rule-bending of our hero, after a couple of those colleagues' shouting matches to which middle-brow television is incurably addicted. The furry subject matter seems to me to undermine any possibility of cutting- edge career drama, but if the notion of a "high-powered small animals specialist" doesn't make you giggle you may well enjoy it.

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