Greasy Pole: Cracking the Whip

Seasoned addicts of the pub quiz may not be too confident when confronted with the question, ‘Who is the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury?’ The answer is not George Osborne’s speech writer but the government’s Chief Whip, the MP whose job is to be what Margaret Thatcher called the ‘Cabinet enforcer’ –to smooth the abrasiveness of capitalist administration by ensuring that government MPs turn up in the Commons when they are told to and that when they are there they vote as the government needs. The Chief Whip is allocated to that grand title in order to get paid for so demanding a job, which also applies to the lower manipulators in their office, who are allowed to announce themselves as Comptroller of HM Household or the like, but who are commonly known as Deputy or Assistant Whips.


In spite of all that implied chivalry, the Whips are renowned for the ruthless methods they use to discipline the MPs. In the Commons they instruct Members how to vote through hand signals; those who disobey may have to be reminded of their prospects of promotion or receive a discreet word in the ear about the Whips’ awareness of some embarrassing information or personal secrets (which in another context could be known as blackmail). Or there may be MPs who are sick enough to need to be dragged to the Commons. For example, Leslie Spriggs, who was the Labour MP for St. Helens during the decline of the Callaghan government. In 1974, although he was desperately ill after a dangerous heart attack, Spriggs was driven to the Commons by ambulance for a crucial vote. When he arrived two Whips (one Labour, one Tory) could not at first agree whether he was still alive. Then the Tory had the bright idea of fiddling with the controls of the heart machine which briefly revived the patient enough for him to be able to crow, in a kind of triumph, ‘there – you’ve lost!’.


In spite of the bogus titles and the instructions and the bullying, can the Whips represent themselves as examples of the standards they demand of others? Geoff Hoon, who was Chief Whip from June 2007 until October 2008, was renowned for his prominent ambitions. As an obediently Blairite Defence Secretary he distinguished himself when he did not shrink from admitting that he was willing to have nuclear weapons used against Iraq ‘in the right circumstances’ and later responding to an Iraqi mother that ‘one day they might’ thank the British Army after her child had been killed by a shower of cluster bombs. After a clumsy attempt to assert his leadership claims through undermining Gordon Brown, he was persuaded to stand down from Parliament. By then he had been responsible for putting in for expenses which were questionable and he later admitted to an undercover reporter that he intended to use his experience in government in a way that ‘frankly makes money’. He perhaps found this a year or so later when he went to work for the same AgustaWestland who during his time at Defence were awarded a helicopter order worth £1.7 billion. All things considered, it was gruesomely appropriate that other MPs should dub him ‘Buffoon’.


The most recent – and infamous – Chief Whip was Andrew Mitchell who went to Rugby School which makes him only a little less exalted than Cameron and his gang from Eton. Mitchell was a prefect at Rugby where he prided himself on being a ‘stern disciplinarian’, although among the other pupils he was known as ‘thrasher’. After leaving school Mitchell had two spells as an officer in the Army. As Shadow Home Office Minister he covered police matters. All in all his experiences may have persuaded him that he was a Chief Whip whose orders would instantly be obeyed. He broke into the headlines last September when he drew on his barrack-room vocabulary to abuse and sneer at the policemen guarding Downing Street who were obeying their orders to prevent people cycling through a gate – and then he cycled off for supper at the Carlton Club. Mitchell’s response to the surge of negative publicity was not notable for any military precision for after at first denying any blame for the incident, he apologised twice but was then observed, on the Front Bench, mouthing that he had not sworn at the police. In the end he was forced to resign, with a grudgingly partial admission of being at fault: ‘whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter I will not be able to fulfil my duties…nor is it fair to continue to put my family and colleagues through this upsetting and demanding publicity.’ ** His reputation sustained further damage when his successor Sir George Young cancelled the order he had made during his brief time as Chief Whip for a luxury Jaguar official car to chauffeur him from Downing Street to Parliament –about 200 yards.

(** The official police log of the incident notes that Mitchell said “Best you learn your fucking place. You don’t run this fucking government … You’re fucking plebs.  I’ll have your fucking job for this.”)


What the Duke of Wellington called the ‘whipping-in’ system was formally introduced to Parliament in the 1880s. It is now as near an essential weapon of government as can be designed by the most devious and ruthless of political leaders. Governing capitalism is not a simple matter of applying a clutch of easily constructed, widely applicable restraints but a process which must take into account that there is within the ruling class a maze of conflicting interests of power and influence. And there is the need to impose laws, regulations and procedures which are directed at inducing the subject class to accept their inferior place in this society, if necessary through further laws. To ensure that this goes as smoothly as possible is the function of the Whips, who will contest any tendency of legislators to pay heed to their election pledges or to question the rationale of the process. That this is as ugly as it sounds is reflected in the methods of those who manage it all. And if this is a literally rotten style of running our human affairs it is because we suffer under an essentially rotten social system.

Correction – last month we said that Paddy Ashdown retired as Liberal Democrat leader in 1992, whereas we actually had to put up with him for seven years longer and he retired from that post in 1999.

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