Politics

'Parliamentary enforcers stoop to threats, goads, blackmail and even violence'


Tory rebels who want to oust Boris Johnson have been warned they will lose investment in their constituencies and possibly their seats. Paul Routledge writes about it…

House of Commons and Palace of Westminster
House of Commons and Palace of Westminster in London

They may not commit murder like the fictional whip Francis Urquhart in TV’s House of Cards but perhaps that’s only because there are so many police in the Palace of Westminster.

The parliamentary enforcers of the House of Commons have stooped to everything else: threats, goads, blackmail, inducements – and even violence.

Former Cabinet minister Jack Straw still winces at the memory of his first encounter with hard-nosed Yorkshireman Walter Harrison, deputy chief whip in James Callaghan’s minority government.

Harrison, a former electrician whose smile was as frightening as his machine-gun laugh, shoved him against the wall and grabbed him by the testicles.

Straw gulped: “What have I done?” “Nowt,” growled wicked Walter. “But think what I’d do if you crossed me!”

Whip Joe Ashton called it “a wonderful macho time” but recalled with sadness: “The whips’ office killed six people – I say that with deep sympathy.

“Some of them had to have their operations at ten in the morning and come here to vote at ten at night.”







British actor Ian Richardson who plays Francis Urquhart in the television programme House of Cards
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Image:

BBC)

The old ways are reasserting themselves. Tory rebels who want to oust Boris Johnson have been warned they will lose investment in their constituencies and possibly their seats.

They also complain that whips have been smearing dissidents by leaking to the press stories from their secret “black book” about drinking habits and personal lives.

One rebel claims: “They got right up in my face. They told me that if you think you’re getting a single f***ing penny, if you think a minister is coming to your patch, forget it. You’re done.”

At least he was spared the “Harrison handshake”.

A Treasury whip under Gordon Brown told me: “Obviously, we twisted arms. And it’s the new members who get intimidated, there’s usually a few you can browbeat.”

The whips’ heyday was the 1970s when they were a ruthless praetorian guard charged with driving the government’s business through Parliament.

Now the digital revolution has changed everything. Today’s rebels threaten to publish secretly recorded exchanges with current chief whip Mark Spencer, exploding the Whipgate story to Partygate dimensions.

The whips are a nursery for ministerial office and act as talent scouts for No10. Only two Chief Whips, John Major and Ted Heath, have made it all the way to Prime Minister.

Tony Blair tried to change their image, appointing three women – Ann Taylor, Hilary Armstrong and Jacqui Smith – as Chief Whip. Their influence has not been sustained.

The term comes from fox-hunting: a whipper-in is a huntsman’s assistant who drives hounds back to the pack.

They don’t wear red jackets or ride horses – at least not in the confines of the Palace – but their role is remarkably unchanged. For most of the time they are simply the day-to-day managers of parliamentary business. Neither government nor opposition could function without them.

Whips are also the PM’s eyes and ears, looking for any signs of dissent or rebellion on the back benches.

Enoch Powell famously said: “The House of Commons without whips is like a city without sewers.”

He might say that, but I couldn’t possibly comment…

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