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
News
people
News
A survey carried out by Sainsbury's Finance found 20% of new university students have never washed their own clothes, while 14% cannot even boil an egg
science...and the results are not as pointless as that sounds
News
Dominique Alderweireld, also known as Dodo de Saumure, is the owner of a string of brothels in Belgium
newsPhilip Sweeney gets the inside track on France's trial of the year
News
Cumberbatch was speaking on US television when he made the comment (Getty)
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge, Travis Barker and Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 pictured in 2011.
musicBassist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker say Tom Delonge is 'disrespectful and ungrateful'
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'
tvBroadchurch series 2, episode 4, review - contains spoilers
Sport
cyclingDisgraced cycling star says people will soon forgive his actions
News
Britain's Prince Philip attends a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in London
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran will play three sell-out gigs at Wembley Stadium in July
music
News
i100
News
Lena Dunham posing for an official portrait at Sundance 2015
people
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Sport
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
football
News
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
video
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: International Customer Service Administrators

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join an awa...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea