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.

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