Who are the whips and how do they operate?

Events in Parliament on Wednesday have put the role of Government whips under scrutiny again.

20 October 2022

Wednesday’s chaos in Parliament led to reports that Government chief whip Wendy Morton and her deputy Craig Whittaker had resigned as party discipline unravelled.

Ahead of Liz Truss’s resignation, Number 10 said they remained in post, but events have put the role of whips and how they function back in the spotlight.

Here, the PA news agency explains the whipping system in Parliament.

– What do Whips do?

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Chief Whip of the House of Commons Wendy Morton reportedly resigned on Wednesday (James Manning/PA)

The role of whips is to broadly maintain discipline among MPs, ensuring they toe the line and vote in accordance with their party’s agenda.

Whips also play a key role in maintaining lines of communication between the party leadership and backbench MPs, while closely monitoring any signs of potential discord which could lead to disruption.

It is believed the use of term whip in Parliament goes back to the 18th century and derives from the hunting term “whipper in” – the person who used a whip to keep the hounds from straying from the pack.

– How do they attempt to maintain party discipline?

Managing what recent developments showed can sometimes be fraught relationships requires striking a tricky balance between asserting authority and using gentle persuasion to keep potential troublemakers in check.

This means the core work of whips goes on behind closed doors, creating a sense of mystery surrounding their role as they carefully manoeuvre between internal factions, vested interests and opposition counterparts.

This has created an impression that whips are the arch manipulators of politics, employing underhand tactics, trading favours and striking deals to ensure they get their way.

This perception has been maintained in part by some commentators, with journalist Jeremy Paxman once describing them as “keepers of Parliament’s dark secrets and custodians of the baubles of public life”.

While this view may appear exaggerated, belonging to a bygone age of political “dark arts” when whips kept “black books” of MPs’ misdemeanours for leverage, the behaviour of whips has been questioned in recent months.

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William Wragg, chairman of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, accused former Government whips of ‘blackmail’ (Parliament TV/PA)

During the “partygate” scandal which engulfed Boris Johnson’s government earlier this year, Conservative chair of the Public Administration and Constitutions Affairs select committee, William Wragg, accused Tory whips of blackmailing MPs by warning their constituencies would lose investment if they continued efforts to oust the Prime Minister.

Whips may employ other, softer, tactics to influence MPs, with the power to allocate favourable offices in the parliamentary estate or, in some cases, offer prominent positions or support for an MP’s campaign in return for loyalty.

Gavin Williamson, former Cabinet minister and chief whip under Theresa May, was famously photographed with a whip on his desk in a nod to his previous role.

But he claimed the role of a whip is to support colleagues, telling the Conservative Party conference in 2017 that “we are really here to help”.

“We take a carrot and stick approach. Personally I don’t much like the stick, but it is amazing what can be achieved with a sharpened carrot,” he added.

– What is “the whip” and what are the consequences of defying it?

Labour MP Hilary Benn, on stage during an anti-Brexit rally in Parliament Square (Yui Mok/PA)

Beyond backroom influencing by whips, the key disciplinary tool is “the whip”, which is an instruction on how to vote. The importance of the vote is determined on how many times it is underlined in the notification.

A one-line whip is seen as a “request” for MPs to attend a vote rather than a requirement, while the rarely-used two-line whip dictates that attendance is “necessary” and MPs must request permission not to take part.

A three-line whip, as imposed on Tory MPs for Wednesday’s vote on fracking, is “essential” and ignoring it could lead to the whip being removed.

This would mean any MP who chose to do so would no longer represent their party and be required to sit as an independent.

This initially happened to the 21 Tory MPs who voted against the Government in 2019 to enable the passing of the so-called Benn Act, named after Labour MP Hilary Benn, which was designed to prevent a no-deal Brexit and later repealed.

It was initially unclear what will happen to the dozens of Tory MPs who voted against the Government on Wednesday, with No 10 saying they would face “proportionate disciplinary action”.

– What else do whips do?

While the role of whips as enforcers attracts the most attention, they are also required to work with their counterparts in other parties to organise the Business of the House of Commons and maintain links between the Government and the opposition.

This is done through a combination of regular meetings and other less formal channels to establish the parliamentary timetable.

Gavin Barwell, a Government whip between 2013 and 2016, said being a whip meant “you’d be the go-to expert” for all MPs on “when the vote was coming and what it was about”.

Perhaps describing his own style rather than the accepted norm, he added: “If you read stories of whipping in the fifties and sixties, it sounds like there was a lot of barking orders, intimidation, and that doesn’t work today.”

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