You'll get power and a big pay rise. So who'd turn down a job as whip?

Karen Buck refused to be one. Quite right, too, says Jo Dillon

Jo Dillon
Wednesday 02 April 2014 05:23

He was the ultimate control freak. Duplicitous, conniving, cheating, corrupt and menacing, he would do anything to get what he wanted.

He was Francis Urquhart, the Chief Whip and anti-hero of the novel and hit television series House of Cards, through which politician-turned writer Michael Dobbs briefly shone a torch into the dark world of the whips office.

Urquhart might have been a fictional character but the real thing – the secretive world of the whips, and their power and control at the heart of the House of Commons machine – has at times borne uncomfortable similarities to the Urquhartian mould.

The whips' office has long attracted the ruthlessly ambitious and been seen as a training ground for high-flyers. Yet when Labour backbencher Karen Buck was offered the chance to enter the world of the whips in the post-election reshuffle she turned it (and the £27,000 pay rise that goes with it) down this week, arguing she could better serve her constituents from the backbenches.

Some colleagues branded her "barmy". Others who had served in the whips' office thought her rather smarter. Traditionally based at No 12 Downing Street and in offices off the Members' Lobby in the House of Commons, the government whips are essentially Parliamentary business managers responsible for discipline, ensuring the maximum turn-out in a vote, gathering intelligence about the mood of MPs, as well as keeping a close eye on the personal problems of members.

Its "old boys" include former Prime Ministers Sir Edward Heath and John Major, senior Tory Cecil Parkinson, Conservative leadership contender Michael Portillo and senior Labour figures including Peter Mandelson, Nick Brown, and Cabinet ministers Geoff Hoon and Estelle Morris.

The opposition parties have their own whips – the word comes from "whipper-in", the huntsman who keeps the pack of dogs together – to do the same job. Whipping 659 individual MPs with their individual problems and personalities is tough at the best of times. In 1992, when John Major's government was trying to push through the hated Maastricht Bill, it was a nightmare. Night after night, rebels threatened the government's survival."The whips would do anything. Blackmail, bully or bribe, depending on who they were trying to win over," one Tory recalled.

Michael Brown, a whip during those years, remembers life from the other side.

"There was the thug way – grabbing someone by the lapels and swearing and cursing and threatening them that they wouldn't get this job or that trip. And then there was my way: if there was a problem, spray it with champagne.

"The worst nightmare for a whip is a happily married MP who has no mistress, who is rich, who doesn't want a job and who has his constituency party on side. You have no hold over him whatsoever."

But surely the advent of New Labour, replete with its bulging majorities, has put an end to all this?There may no longer be a Black Book of people's personal indiscretions (no one's admitting the existence of one anyway) but the whips of the 1997 parliament were still a race apart, gathering to whisper in corners in the Stranger's Bar, and working long hours.

"The meetings at No 12 descended into bitching and backbiting," said one MP. The way whips behaved in the 1997 parliament was a "missed opportunity" for making parliament more relevant, helping develop MPs' careers and improving the standing of the House of Commons. "Tony Blair is interested in maintaining the power of the executive. He doesn't really believe in the role of parliament," said the MP. "That's a mistake."

Today's whips insist that under Hilary Armstrong, the new Chief Whip, all that is about to change, with no strong-arm tactics. One said: "We will be part of the 'delivery strategy', finding out from MPs what is happening in their constituencies. They know a great deal about the situation in the country. It's also about making Parliament more relevant and giving MPs more of a voice, which is what we want to do."

In return, MPs will have to "deliver". "They have a job to do out there. We will be making sure they do it." The whips will be responsible for making sure their flock achieves the best "personal vote" in the next election.

As one MP observed: "They don't drink the blood of parliamentary virgins at No 12 every morning." They say they have changed. Time will tell. Or, as Francis Urquhart himself would surely have said: "You may say that. I couldn't possibly comment."

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