Greasy Pole: The Whip Who Cracked
It can’t all be fun, being a Blair Babe. When Labour came to power in 1997 quite a few of those female MPs were spoken of as future Prime Ministers. With nice, expectant smiles they clustered around their leader, still aglow from his promise that “A new dawn has broken, has it not?” But since those intoxicated days a cruel reality has taken over as one Babe after another has slid down the greasy pole.
Ann Taylor was sacked from the job as Chief Whip, apparently because of her inept manner of telling Blair what to do and say – which would have been some way beyond the job of simply offering him advice. Estelle Morris dismissed herself from the Department of Education because it was all too much for her; she worried so cripplingly about decisions that in the end she disabled herself from taking any — apart from her resignation, that is. Beverley Hughes had to go from the Home Office after denying that she knew about fraudulent asylum applications from Romania and Bulgaria when there was conclusive evidence, which eventually washed her away, that she did know. Ruth Kelly’s hold on the job of Education Secretary looks increasingly fragile; apart from anything else, the fate of the latest clutch of changes in education looks more uncertain by the day.
And then there is the present Chief Whip, Hilary Armstrong, who has always been one of the more vociferous and combative Blair Babes, but who upset Blair when she lost a crucial House of Commons vote through her own misguided efforts. It happened when the Commons defeated the government on amendments to the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. Armstrong miscounted the votes in favour of the unamended Bill and told Blair that it was safe for him to go home; in the event, with the aid of rebellious Labour MPs, the government lost – by just the one vote.
Armstrong was a leading light in the 1997 Blair Babes, apparently looking forward to a bright future. It is different now, after eight years of New Labour’s version of controlling British capitalism. “A disaster where women are concerned,” was how one of her colleagues described her. “She has no respect in the parliamentary party…She is seen as someone who crawls to Downing Street and regards the parliamentary party with contempt,” was the opinion of one peeved MP. Such ratings probably don’t register with her; she is, after all, a kind of Labour Party aristocrat, inheriting her seat — Durham North West — from her father, who was also a Chief Whip in a Harold Wilson Government in the days before bouncy media types had titillated Labour’s women with a saucy brand name like Blair Babes. She has said that her father’s diaries informed her that a Whip leads a hard life, although her rise to the Cabinet was rather easier than it usually is for others; she was selected as the candidate for Durham North West at her first attempt and was appointed as Chief Whip after only a brief spell as a junior minister for local government in John Prescott’s cumbersome monster of a department covering Environment, Transport and the Regions. There are comforts in the patronage traditionally associated with an aristocracy and clearly Armstrong has taken advantage of them.
The office of the Whips came into its own with the polarisation of the parties consequent on the 1832 Reform Act. Before then parliamentary business had been the concern of the Speaker; the Whips, using a social network centred on exclusive London clubs like Brooks and Whites, were supposed to “give advice” to MPs on how they might think about voting. The pairing system, now an important part of the Whip’s work (as Armstrong, after her disastrous miscounting, must now know) was largely left for the MPs to arrange themselves. After the Act the Whips took on these duties, as well as developing links between MPs and the government. This was, they said, a matter of “continuity” – a word ominous rather than reassuring.
The late Ted Heath, who was Chief Whip in the Conservative governments between 1955 and 1959, described the work as “above all, to hold the parliamentary party together” and in more detail: “I was determined to get away from the generally held view . . . that the Whips were a gang of ignorant bullies, forcing Members of Parliament to vote in certain ways, all too often against their wishes.” There are, of course, other responsibilities. Heath recalled one, not untypical, early morning incident when he telephoned an absent MP whose vote was needed, to be told by the MP’s sleepy wife that he was, as usual, at the Commons. Such chance events, said Heath, helped the Whips keep an eye on Members with long-term matrimonial problems and so avoid a scandal. He did not also say that such wayward MPs might be effectively reminded of their obligations to vote as the party wished by a little prudent blackmail.
In his memoirs The Course of My Life, Heath gives some indication of what is implied by the phrase “to hold the parliamentary party together”. His time as Chief Whip coincided with the Suez invasion; he had serious reservations about this, in particular about the secret agreement between Britain, France and Israel which encouraged Israel to attack Egypt and so provide a spurious justification for the Anglo-French attack. But when a Tory MP who had abstained in the Commons vote on the war asked him outright if there had been such a secret plot, Heath “looked (him) straight in the eyes and said nothing. He understood completely”. But it seems that such adaptability of principles on Heath’s part was only achieved at some cost. Before he joined the Whip’s office Heath was known as a gregarious, convivial Member.
The years devoted to “holding the party together” — suppressing his own responses to events in order to stifle potential rebellion and to manage the government vote — had left its mark on him. He was on course to become Prime Minister but he had become an unbending, obsessive man with an apparent mission in life to be as rude and contemptuous to as many of the people he called his colleagues, as possible. Iain Macleod, who was one of his bitterest enemies in the Tory party, damned him as “totally unable to make a speech that anybody can listen to . . . no feeling for words at all, no feeling for the rhythm of language”.
Heath would have been appalled to the point of apoplexy at the confusion which led to Hilary Armstrong losing the vote on the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, and in such humiliating circumstances. Of course she has had what might be called her successes, which means she has wangled, or cajoled, or bullied, MPs into voting against their first inclinations and to support the government on issues like the attack on Iraq, with its loss of tens of thousands of lives. Such achievements in the cause of British capitalism have not softened the antagonism towards her. When she is full cry in the Commons she makes her points — if that is what she is doing — in a voice which has earned her the nickname of Squawker. When Michael Howard, then Tory leader, taunted Blair by reading extracts from Stephen Pollard’s highly embarrassing biography of David Blunkett, Armstrong’s contribution to the debate was to throw the book across the despatch box into the groin of a Tory front bencher (who reacted as if he had been shot there. Well, this was the House of Commons and not a school playground).
Armstrong’s blunder on this Bill was only one of a series of recent defeats for the government which, with other events such as the result of the by-election on Dunfermline and West Fife, seem to have persuaded many Labour MPs, up to now myopically loyal, that their best hope of survival at the next election lies in timely rebellion. In the face of this cynicism Armstrong has a desperate struggle to hold the parliamentary party together — a struggle in which she will employ as much cynicism as have the rebels. Of all the dirty jobs in politics that of the Chief Whip is among the dirtiest, most contaminating. And that goes for much of what capitalism demands, day in and day out, to hold it together.