The way the whips leave their mark

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LAST WEEK was that rarest of things: a bad week for the government whips. The ousting of Nicholas Winterton, an outspoken Tory backbencher, from the Health Select Committee, which he chaired, backfired by threatening to unseat other, more compliant Tory appointees.

The grounds given for Mr Winterton's removal - that he had served on the committee too long - called into question the position of Tory MPs who have served equally long periods on other committees.

Although the government whips are not represented on the committee of selection, the plot against Mr Winterton is widely believed to be at their instigation.

Attacked as the freemasonry of politics and the scourge of free thought, the whips are also the engine of government. The 14 members of the whips' office are ministers with cars, drivers and salaries to match. But unlike other ministers they are not household names, because by convention they do not speak in debates, talk to the media or write memoirs about the whips' office.

The all-male alumni include the Prime Minister, the Leader of the House of Lords, Lord Wakeham, and half the Cabinet (no woman has ever been made a Conservative whip). Little that goes on in Parliament remains beyond the whips' ken.

During President Gorbachev's last visit to London, for a G7 summit, there was amusement that the KGB contingent was allocated quarters at Number 12 Downing Street, home of the Government Chief Whip. When the Soviet leader returned home to be ejected from office, the joke was that the KGB hadn't learnt enough from their hosts.

The name 'whips', derived from the fox-hunting whippers- in who keep the hounds from straying, describes much of the function. Three, including the Deputy Chief Whip, enjoy the royal titles 'Treasurer', 'Vice- Chamberlain' and 'Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household'. Except for the Vice-Chamberlain, who writes a daily report of Commons proceedings for the Queen, royal functions are largely ceremonial.

In the Commons a whip has three roles: to ensure the government wins votes, to gather intelligence about his backbenchers, and to gauge their performance. Put simply, whips' recommendations decide whether MPs become ministers or stay on the backbenches. Even for those without hope of ministerial office the whips are dangerous to cross, as Mr Winterton discovered.

Concealed behind heavy wooden doors off the marble- floored neo-Gothic hallway of the members' lobby, the government whips' office holds all the usual panoply of office equipment - desks, filing cabinets and lots of telephones - but also comfortable armchairs and a bulging drinks cabinet. Only the Chief Whip, Richard Ryder, has a separate office.

By all accounts the atmosphere changes throughout the day, from parliamentary nerve centre to drinking club. The whips' office, which forms a certain path to ministerial office, is clubbish because it is self-selecting. One older MP described it as the nearest thing he had encountered to a wartime officers' mess.

Women MPs are not so impressed, most regarding it as the parliamentary equivalent of the rugby club changing room. One female MP described how her entry after a late-night vote was greeted with an embarrassed silence as smutty jokes were curtailed.

In the 1970s, with a minority government, the Labour whips' office came into its own under Michael (now Lord) Cocks and his formidabledeputy, Walter Harrison. Some MPs and ministers were stretchered in from hospital for divisions; according to one contemporary: 'If they were still breathing they arranged ambulances.'

Nowadays, business management tasks are more mundane, although the Government's reduced majority could bring the return of similar scenes. In the chamber, help is never far away and the whips have a 'panic button' to summon assistance if they expect an opposition ambush.

Intelligence-gathering is more complex. No matter how late the debate, a whip will attend every Commons sitting or parliamentary committee, making notes about MPs' contributions in a big blue folder. Each year a whip is allocated a government department, entitling him to attend ministerial meetings.

Information-gathering extends to Westminster's many bars and restaurants. As one whip put it: 'The House of Commons quickly finds people out. It is a gossipy institution and invariably someone here knows something about you that you don't want known. If someone else in the House knows it, there's a 95 per cent chance we know it.'

This can help MPs, who are treated sympathetically if they have domestic problems or financial difficulties. But with knowledge comes power. One former senior whip, according to a Tory MP, has stored in his head details not only of his colleagues' strengths and weaknesses, but also the names of mistresses and favourite restaurants.

Limited defiance of the government line is expected, and usually greeted with offers of ministerial meetings to explain policy.

Those not talked out of their opposition can expect various forms of attack. After he had rebelled, one MP (now a minister) described a whip inquiring whether - now that his political career was at an end - he would continue to sit in Parliament.

On another occasion a whip is said to have threatened a rebellious Tory backbencher that his knighthood was in jeopardy. 'Of course it wouldn't matter to you,' the whip argued with unerring sense for a weak spot, 'but think how your wife would take it . . .'

For opposition whips there are fewer carrots on offer, and the salaried chief whip is now elected. According to one Labour MP, this is 'like asking the Brigade of Guards to vote for its regimental sergeant major.' Office allocation, overseas trips, select committee positions and sometimes front-bench jobs are in the gift of the Labour whips.

But without the lure of government office, and with the Labour chief whip being elected, the Opposition cannot hope to impose Tory-style discipline.

Labour whips can content themselves with the thought that it is worse for the Liberal Democrats. Jim Wallace, their former chief whip, once concluded that, with so few MPs, the only real sanction he had was to threaten them with being put on even more committees.

(Photograph omitted)