Rebel MPs warned: toe line or lose your place in the sun

Whips seek to control dissident backbenchers by withholding all-expenses-paid official trips to exotic locations
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Indy Politics

There will be no place in the sun for rebellious Labour MPs. The word has gone out: step out of line and forget those plans for an all-expenses-paid "fact-finding" trip to the Caribbean.

There will be no place in the sun for rebellious Labour MPs. The word has gone out: step out of line and forget those plans for an all-expenses-paid "fact-finding" trip to the Caribbean.

Instead, they face being detained for hour after hour in the claustrophobic corridors of the Commons, kicking their heels while they wait to be summoned to vote on minor pieces of legislation.

Several senior Labour MPs have already been invited to have a one-to-one "conversation" with Tommy McAvoy, the longest-serving and most feared of Labour's whips - the Parliamentary drill sergeants who keep backbenchers in line.

This raises the prospect of the end of a way of life for globe-trotting MPs, who last year alone made trips to more than 80 different countries, with destinations in the United States proving most popular.

The choices of destination were also fortuitous. The Caribbean enjoyed its fair share of parliamentary visits. The members of the Parliamentary British-Caribbean Group managed to fit in free trips to Jamaica, St Lucia, the Dominican Republic and Trinidad, in between the slightly less glamorous work of listening to constituents' concerns and voting in the House of Commons.

A group of five MPs spent six days in the Cayman Islands last July - where it consistently tops 90F - in order to "maintain links" and "develop an understanding" with one of the world's favourite tourist locations.

The All-Party Parliamentary Football Team took advantage of the European football championships in Portugal last summer, spending four days there playing football against parliamentarians from other countries.

As well as having the power to prevent MPs spending too much time in the sun, the whips also have direct influence over who gets places on the plum committees, such as the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Its members have enjoyed trips to Cyprus, the Balkans and Iran.

The keenest junketeers are desperate to avoid posts with the Environmental Audit Committee, for instance. On principle, it always uses the most environmentally friendly travel means - so when others are jetting off to an exotic holiday resort, they are likely to be taking a coach to Bradford to inspect rubbish tips.

Even if MPs make it out of the country they cannot leave the pager at home. The whips have a very long reach, as one errant Labour MP discovered. In one of the most notorious cases yet, he was given permission to go to Australia, but when he arrived he was sent a message ordering him to fly back urgently to vote. When he arrived home, he learnt the vote had been cancelled.

Overseas travel is a traditional means used by the whips to punish rebels and reward loyalty. Well-behaved backbenchers can usually count on a friendly nod and wink from the whips when the tropical sun beckons. But the Government's much-reduced majority has forced the whips to crack down.

Even the feared Mr McAvoy faces a tougher battle than before. The whips' power has been undermined since the election by an increasing unwillingness among Labour MPs to follow orders.

The "no-junkets" threat has already backfired when one experienced MP answered back. He had just held his seat, which was high on the Liberal Democrat target list, by reminding his electors how he had opposed Tony Blair over the Iraq war. He told Mr McAvoy: "Instead of asking me what I'm going to do for you, you should be saying what you're going to do for me!"

And last week, the whips reluctantly agreed that the doughty 74-year-old MP Gwyneth Dunwoody could serve another term as chairman of the Commons Transport Committee. They had tried to sack her four years ago, for making life difficult for successive transport ministers, but were forced by a backbench revolt to reinstate her.

Additional reporting by Tom Anderson


Fact-finding heaven

Nowhere is more popular than the US for truth-seeking MPs. America easily topped the visitors' league, according to the members' register of interests for 2004, with destinations ranging from Los Angeles to New York. Guests included Stephen Byers, Clare Short and Jack Cunningham.

Most tanned committee

Last year the members of the All-Party Parliamentary British-Caribbean Group relaxed on trips to Jamaica, St Lucia and the Dominican Republic as guests of the Caribbean British Business Council. Visitors included David Marshall, Diane Abbott and George (now Lord) Foulkes.

Top traveller

Jack Cunningham was among the leading air-milers, with visits to Washington DC (twice), Amsterdam, Florida and Shanghai, plus one at the invitation of the Automobile Club of Monaco. But he was out-tripped by Clare Short, the former aid minister, whose trips included missions to Rwanda and Ethiopia.