Twilight revolt: MPs hit back at whips' demands for evening votes

 

For years they have been feared and loathed in equal measure, rumoured to have the ability to reduce errant MPs to tears and submission with a flick through their "little black book".

But now the fabled Conservative whips – who provided the inspiration for the murderous Francis Urquhart in The House of Cards – are facing a rebellion they are finding hard to control: the modern world.

They are under attack from their new MPs who make up almost half the parliamentary party and cannot understand for need for the cast-iron discipline and subservience to the whips' office that their predecessors took for granted.

Most have had jobs in the "real world" as bankers, doctors and accountants and believe the whips should be keener on "career development" than career control. But what has caused the most ire among the new backbenchers is the whips' policy of using "overwhelming force" to ensure they never lose a parliamentary vote.

Research by The Independent – prompted by complaints from disgruntled backbenchers – into voting margins in the first three months of this year has highlighted 14 occasions when the Government had a whopping majority of over 300 MPs against Bills where there was next to no opposition.

Often, Coalition MPs are being made to stay at Westminster late into the night to attend the votes – even though their Labour counterparts have long since gone home.

A series of proposed amendments to the Scotland Bill in March, including making the Maritime and Coastguard Agency a cross-border public authority and allowing the Scottish Parliament to legislate on food labelling, were opposed by as many as 480 MPs, even though just nine Scottish National Party members were proposing the Bill.

On average, there was a voting margin of 150 in favour of the Government between January and March and a margin of over 250 in 24 out of 75 votes. The Coalition has a majority of only 76.

"The whips seem to have no sense at all of 'threat management'," said one disgruntled backbencher who, like a number of his colleagues, was not confident enough to be named.

He said: "We're all being kept here – often late into the night – to vote and then we end up with a majority of over 200 because no one from the other side turns up. It's a total waste of everyone's time and not a good way to run Parliament." Another MP said: "The whips' office doesn't appear to have any sense of career development for new MPs like me. All they seem to care about is us doing as we're told. But many of us have lived in the modern world and won't simply accept that things are done like this 'because they always have been'." The issue has been raised with the influential 1922 Committee, which represents backbenchers to the Government.

A source on the committee said: "Much of the irritation is coming from the new intake of MPs who do not remember what it was like in Opposition. Then, we knew we were going to lose but still went through the lobbies because otherwise what was the point of us being there? Having said that I do think there is a case to have a more flexible approach." Another MP added: "If you regard all the 650 people there as simply to make up the numbers, it is not only unpopular, it is actually deeply counterproductive when it comes to making law."

One backbencher prepared to go on the record is Dr Sarah Wollaston, a former GP who is now MP for Totnes and was the first Conservative candidate to be chosen in an open primary. She said the whips allowed her to join the select committee on health, but she was refused a place on the Bill committee. "I wasn't allowed to be on the committee because I was very clear that I wanted to table amendments," she said. "Every clause is a three-line whip and every clause is voted through. That means the only way it will be opposed is in the House of Lords, which is going to cost a whole lot more money in the end."

Bill Cash, a longstanding Tory rebel, described what was going on as a "tsunami of whipping" from a Coalition Government desperate to show it remains in control. "They are preoccupied with survival and want to demonstrate the message that the Coalition Government is fully in control. The whips do what they are told, they force it through."

Whether the whips will be able to see off the rebellion remains to be seen. They are certainly outnumbered – with 143 new MPs out of a total parliamentary party of just over 300.

Nobody from the Government's whips' office was available to speak about the new threat. Their silence perhaps eloquently reflecting Urquhart's catchphrase: "You might say that but I couldn't possibly comment."

What a whip does

The expression "whip" has its origins in hunting. The "whipper-in" was the huntsman's assistant who kept the hounds from straying by driving them back with a whip into the pack. It was first used in a parliamentary context in the 1700s.

The primary role of the Chief Whip is to get the Government's business through Parliament, and to secure the Government's majority in votes on its legislative programmes.

The techniques used by the whips to persuade backbenchers to support the Government have always been subject to comment and rumour. The political commentator Philip Cowley reported how the Conservative whips kept a "black book" recording their backbenchers' misdemeanours and described how whips could revert to "good old-fashioned physical bullying".

As well as the stick, there is also a carrot in the way whips persuade members to vote for the Government. The Chief Whip is able to offer positions in Government or on popular select committees in return for undying loyalty.

Whips top trumps

Patrick McLoughlin, Chief Whip
Age 53
Background Former coal miner (and once even a member of the NUM), he is by no account your archetypal Tory whip.
Empathy rating 3/5
Ferocity 2/5
Competence 2/5
They say Decent man – but may not be up to the dark arts of the whips' office. Rumours abound in Westminster that colleagues are circling for his job in a Cameron reshuffle.

John Randall, Deputy Chief Whip
Age 55
Background Must be the only MP in the House of Commons with a degree in Serbo-Croatian language and literature.Empathy 4/5
Ferocity 2/5
Competence 3/5
They say Given that he resigned as a whip in opposition due to Conservative backing of the Iraq war, how can he use strong-arm tactics on MPs now?

Alistair Carmichael, Deputy Chief Whip (Liberal Democrat)
Age 45
Background Born on the island of Islay, the former lawyer has the unenviable task of herding the Liberal Democrat "cats" into the coalition lobby.
Empathy 2/5
Ferocity 4/5
Competence 4/5
They say Smooth and deadly. Carmichael is a Liberal Democrat whip from the Tory "old school".

Mark Francois, Government Whip
Age 45
Background A comprehensive school-educated right-winger who beat Boris Johnson for the safe Tory seat of Rayleigh.
Empathy 4/5
Ferocity 2/5
Competence 2/5
They say Thought to have personal sympathy with many of his party's right-wingers he is trying to force through the Government lobbies.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003