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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Whips Mean Business in Parliamentary Proceedings

Whips Mean Business in Parliamentary Proceedings

Whips Know Every Nook and Cranny  - Christine Bortes (,_Palace_of_Westminster.jpg)

Periodically, Government whips hit the news and people ask, who are they? What do they do? Why do they have such power?

The Parliamentary website gives a succinct definition: ‘whips are MPs or Lords appointed by each party in Parliament to help organise their party’s contribution to parliamentary business’. They ensure that most party members vote, and vote according to party wishes.

It’s thought ‘whip’ stems from 18th century hunting, where a ‘whipper-in’ was an assistant who drove straying hounds to the main pack by use of a whip. It’s an apt analogy for what a Parliamentary whip does.

The Usual Channels

When either House divides (takes a vote), whips are ‘tellers’, or counters. They stand by lobby entrance doors, so MPs or Lords are in doubt as to which side to vote, ‘ayes to the right, noes to the left’. They plan, arrange and implement Parliament’s daily business.

They agree pairing arrangements, to allow approved members not to vote in a particular division, one absentee cancelling an absence from the other side. The Government of the day usually enjoys a majority over all other parties combined, so everybody cannot be paired.

To carry out their functions, they know the quirks, preferences, weaknesses and strengths of their members. When promotion is in the air, their advice is sought, since the Prime Minister will not have seen many of his side in action in the House.

When a Member is disinclined to support a party line, whips are first to know, quick to take persuasive action, and in the end, are final resort of strong-arm tactics. The discipline of the rank and file troops at their command is their unofficial role. To be invited to have a drink with a whip is not necessarily social pleasure.

They are known as ‘the usual channels’. They are the anonymous, shadowy powers that be, on whose side it is better to stay. They have been likened to sewers, unpleasant but necessary.

The Three-Line Whip

A weekly notice – ‘the whip’ – is dispatched to Members when Parliament is sitting outlining the business for the week ahead. Some matters are noted with a one-line underscore (attendance is entirely voluntary); others get a two-line notation, which means attendance is required unless a member is paired by prior approval.

The three-line underlining is for important votes on policy, confidence, finance, opposition debates, and Second and Third Reading stages of Bills that are contested. For this, attendance is absolute. To defy a three-line whip is frequently career death. Death itself is no excuse.

The Labour Government of 1974-79 had no overall majority, but they were the biggest party. In the dying days, with ‘the Winter of Discontent’ gripping the country, they defended a vote of no confidence. Sick and dying members were brought to Westminster, seen by whips of both sides, then ‘nodded through’ as they couldn’t physically get through the lobby. But they had to be there in person.

Withdrawing the Whip

Sometimes Members are effectively sacked from their party in Parliament (although they stay as elected Members); the whip is withdrawn. Some Conservatives in the Major government (1992-97), called by him in an unguarded moment, ‘The Bastards”, who refused to support Britain’s ratification of the European Union Maastricht Treaty, were expelled.

They were rehabilitated rapidly, as Major’s majority was small. For many habitual rebels, it’s almost a badge of honour to lose the whip. It supports the independent-minded thinking Members should display.

In this time of Coalition government, both Conservative and Lib-Dem parties keep separate whips, responsible for their own members. Senior whips meet as required to plan tactics for getting the agreed business through, and ensure the Coalition Government is not defeated through lack of numbers attending.

Titles and Patronage

The Government Chief Whip is officially appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, to give him/her a seat at the Cabinet table (and a salary) and an office in Downing Street. Deputies and assistants are officers (Treasurer, Comptroller and Vice Chamberlain) of HM Household or junior Lords of the Treasury.

The Lord’s Government Chief Whip is styled Captain of the Honourable Corps of the Gentlemen at Arms. The Deputy is Captain of the Queen’s Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (Beefeaters), and assistants are called Lords and Baronesses in Waiting. The titles speak of cultural tradition and history; or Gilbert and Sullivan, according to taste.

In the case of whips, it’s the trappings with the actuality of power. A government whip stays at Buckingham Palace while the Queen does the honours at The State Opening of Parliament every year, as a hostage in case a hostile Parliament attempts to take the Queen prisoner. This dates from the 17th century civil war!

Current Brouhaha

In October 2011, the Commons Backbench Business Committee in response to public expression of concern about Europe, scheduled a debate on a referendum on continuing British membership. This issue has been a hot one for successive governments for forty years.

The fact that Prime Minister Cameron in opposition promised just such a referendum and then Prime Minister Brown refused one, added fuel to the fire. In a cleverly worded motion, MPs will consider whether the UK should stay in the EU, leave it or renegotiate terms of membership.

Guaranteed to open both old wounds of Conservative Party civil wars over Europe and natural divides within the coalition partners, the whips were said to be ‘frantic’ to whip in Conservative MPs to oppose the referendum. Mark D’Arcy on the BBC News site recommended the government should ‘argue its case’. He said to ‘squash the debate by some procedural fix… would be crass and self-defeating’.

Whips therefore will have to resort to amending the motion, which requires all Conservatives to back the amendment, despite at least 50 being Euro-realists, opposed to European membership. These MPs argue that the seemingly endless financial crisis threatening meltdown in the Eurozone strengthens their hands.

What the opposition Labour party do has a profound effect on the outcome. The result of one vote in the Commons is not the be-all-and-end-all, but can be symbolic, a harbinger of future unrest. Whipping, deals behind closed doors, arm twisting will be as they have been, the real order-order of the day.

But that’s politics.


  • Parliament UK. Whips. Web 20 October 2011.
  • BBC News, Mark D’Arcy, Government whips frantic over EU referendum bid, 18 October, 2011. Web 20 October 2011.

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