Fictional accounts of the work of a parliamentary whip can portray a mysterious world of intrigue, but what really goes on behind the scenes?
In reality, whips are MPs or Lords appointed to help organise each party's contribution to parliamentary business. This ranges from ensuring that MPs vote (and vote according to party wishes), to acting as tellers when votes take place, and arranging parliamentary business.
Anne Milton MP
Anne Milton was elected MP for Guildford in 2005, and re-elected in 2010. She has served as a Government Whip since 2012. Prior to entering the Whips’ Office, Anne was Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department of Health between 2010 and 2012. Before entering Parliament, Anne worked as a nurse and for people requiring palliative care.
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The role of the Whips in Parliament: Open Lecture transcript
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The Whips - the victims of much rumour, myth and speculation but about whom little is still known. Shadowy figures who skulk around Westminster moving in mysterious ways and bound by shared secrets - few of which have ever been revealed. Past and present Whips will have conversations on what is known as 'Whips terms' - a firm promise of a secret to be shared and a secret to be kept. However not all have kept their secrets as secret as they should! Giles Brandreth, MP for Chester from 1992-97 and Government Whip for two years, was said to have broken the code of the Whips and outraged many when he published his diaries. Giles Brandreth probably rightly described the Whips office as “an office of curious customs and practices” but did he reveal all? A few tit bits to wet the appetites of those reading the fly cover only!
And tonight I may disappoint. The advert that was sent out ahead of this evening's lecture made mention of 'the mysterious world of intrigue' to draw you in with the tantalising suggestion that ALL is to be revealed. I can tell you much but I am NOT intending to make Daily Mail headlines tomorrow! So - few secrets revealed but importantly I do hope to be able to give some insight into the times, trials, tribulations and work of the modern day Whips Office. However I use the term 'modern' loosely. The Houses of Parliament are slow to change their ways and modern can refer to anything in the last 50 years!
To illustrate this point you only need to back to the 1850's when it was said of the Whips, "they are ready to perform any trick or dodge for the benefit of their party' - some journalist could have said that yesterday. But it may have given rise to the comment from around the same time from Robert Peel who said that the post of the Whip was "a place which requires a gentleman to fill it and which no gentleman would take,"
However closer to the truth today, former Chief Whip Tim Renton in his book said that, "a good whip is not just a sergeant major. He (or she) is also a counsellor and a nanny. The Whips listen everywhere - in the tea room, in the library and watch who is talking to whom and they also keep watch on who the journalists are talking to." This forward thinking former Chief Whip of nearly 1/4 Century ago gives away his modernity by referring to 'he or she'. The mere thought that a woman could be a Whip was an extraordinary suggestion until 1964 when Harriet Slater, a Labour MP, was the first woman appointed to the Government Whips Office - actually they still probably thought it was an extraordinary suggestion in 1964! The Whips Offices - traditionally the place for ex union heavies or ex military types - the Whips Offices were never in any rush to change!
Before moving much further along - a word about the terminology. The Whips are Members of Parliament appointed by the Party leader - the Prime Minister if that Party is in Government. As distinct from ‘The Whip’ which is the document circulated weekly by the Whips of each party to their own members and lists the business for the following week, together with when votes are expected. The importance of an item of Parliamentary business used to be reflected by how many times it was underlined hence the phrase ‘three line whip’. In recent times a 3 line Whip is always seen as an unbreakable commitment with a 2 line and a 1 line Whips being seen as of less importance. However the days of literally underlining the forthcoming Parliamentary Business has gone as we rely so much less on paper communication. But only just - when I was first elected 2005 it was still just about in use, disappearing with the increasing use of email and text - but the phraseology has remained. I understand from the history books that at one time there could be as many as 6 lines of underlining! One wonders what the 6, 5 and 4 line Whips all meant. However MPs lives in times gone past were complex. Being an MP was very much a part time job, MPs were not paid until the early 20th century so gathering MPs to Parliament was probably a more complex affair requiring more detailed instructions about the importance of business.
I did find a reference to what is thought to be the first record of a written Whip. It wasn't referred to as such but it was 'a call to Parliament'. On 25th November 1621 Sir George Calvert, who was a Member of Parliament and one of James 1st's Secretaries of State, wrote to Sir Julius Caesar (and yes there really was an MP by that name, representing Reigate amongst several other places!). Sir George requested Caesar’s attendance in Parliament on the following day and said, ‘every day as long as the house sits to lay the Kings necessitates before Parliament”. Which is much the same as we would say today: 'On Monday, 9th March there will be a 3 line Whip from 3.30pm till all Government business is secured' . So 400 years hasn't changed much albeit with a message written and delivered by very different means!
It is difficult to put the Whips Office in any historical context without looking at the changes in how legislation was taken through Parliament, the reduced influence of the monarch and the rise of the stronger party political affiliations we have today. The Parliamentary world in which the political leaders of the last few centuries was very different from now and so also the job of the Whips. It is also the case that on looking through some of the historical accounts there are some conflicting anecdotes. But what becomes clear is that the Whips and whipping appears to have emerged without anyone really noticing - and in the rather shadowy way one would expect everything to do with the Whips to be!
The expression 'Whip' has its origins in hunting terminology. The term 'whipper-in' is the huntsman's assistant who keeps the hounds from straying by driving them back with the whip into the main body of the pack. It is said that every hunt has to have a 'whipper in' whose job it is to ensure the hounds do not stray. I don't think MPs would like to be referred to as hounds but I think one gets the picture! Indeed according to the some historical records, the first use of the term ‘whipper-in’ in a Parliamentary sense occurred in 1772 - and I quote "he was first a whipper-in to the Premier". However one can find various references to Whips before then - Whips and Whipping goes back a long way! In the debate of 8th May 1769, Edmund Burke talked of calling his friends back and said he was “whipping them in, to which there could not be a better phrase." And if we go even further back to 18th November 1742, one of the Finch family (Earls of various places like Nottingham, Winchelsea and Aylesford) remarked in a letter to Lord Malton that "the Whigs for once in their lives have whipped in better than the Tories". So the term, the practise of getting people into Parliament for votes, and persuading them to vote in a certain way goes back many hundreds of years. It's not surprising. Anyone who is leading a cause - Parliamentary or otherwise - will always need to 'whip' their followers to be effective as a group.
The title ‘Chief Whip’ cannot be dated exactly, and appears to have been formalised in the early nineteenth century. All political parties will have an effective Chief Whip but the term usually refers to the Chief Whip of the Government of the day. The Chief Whip administers the Whipping system including the supervision of the Whips below them. The Chief Whip is also formally known as Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury although the title is rarely used these days. The Chief Whip attends Cabinet and until quite recently was always a member of the Cabinet. The Chief Whip also used to hold the unofficial title of Patronage Secretary or Secretary for Political Jobs but this is only used now with a mixture of irony and humour - there isn't so much patronage to be handed out! Recent changes in Parliament have reduced the opportunities for patronage even further and many decisions that were previously in the hands of the Chief Whip are now decided by Parliament as a whole - eg membership of the Select Committees. A few remain and a few key decisions are still taken in the Whips Offices - including. Interestingly, what office accommodation is given to the MPs of their party. And critically for the ambitious MP the Chief Whip and indeed the Whips collectively, are still key to the success - or not - of an MP's Parliamentary career. The Whips' recommendations to the Leader of their Party or to the Prime Minister hold considerable weight. We are friends worth making and friends worth keeping!
However back to the first known holders of the title Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury - they were just that! In the sixteenth century they were no more than personal servants to the Treasurer – acting as his scribe and confidential secretary. However by the Restoration the Parliamentary Secretary became an important administrative official carrying out some of the functions that were considered essential to the business of the Treasurer.
And the secretaries or ministers of the day would often be named as tellers - those that stand at the doors of the division lobbies and count the MPs who come through. The tellers were therefore in prime position to know who was a friend and who was the foe of the government of the day - and indeed still are. The position of teller was a powerful job and highly political. The tellers, the secretaries, had important information about who had received favours from the Government - patronage was in ample supply - MPs received pensions, contracts, assistance in elections for themselves and their friends. So when it came it ‘whipping in the votes’, the secretaries knew who was in the Government’s debt - who owed the Government - and they also knew who had not repaid the Government with their support in the voting lobbies!
So the Parliamentary Secretaries were closely connected with the Prime Minister and with the administrative work of the Treasury office. The secretaries therefore were skilled in financial matters, became skilled in the technique of parliamentary procedure, and they often served on committees appointed to bring in bills. They knew a lot, had their fingers in many pies and were therefore a powerful bunch.
But that's not it - lets return to the Chief Whip - the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury - the Patronage Secretary. In days gone by he also had hard cash to dole out and he administered the Secret Service Fund which was technically Kings money. So in the 18th Century, the Patronage Secretary was described - not unsurprisingly - as a “rather roguish office”.
By the beginning of the 20th century the Office of the Chief Whip was well established. And although some of that patronage had disappeared over the course of the previous century, the arrangement of Government business in the House, the organisation of MPs attendance in Parliament, making sure important divisions were won, gathering of intelligence on MPs, dishing out jobs and other political offices - all lay in the Chief Whip's hands.
By the early 20th century, we see the work of the Whips increasingly commented upon. There are some very amusing quotes and again you could easily be forgiven for thinking that some were written yesterday - one particularly struck me “There was also a growing tendency for members to grow restive about the activities of the party Whips” - still the case I suspect! And MPs became increasingly aware of the extent to which their own domestic comfort depended on the Whips. Don't forget it was the Whips who arranged the timetable of the House, gave members permission to go home or go on holiday, and arranged the order of speakers in debate. By 1910 they had come to be among the best-known Parliamentary figures. Critics of Parliament were prone to suggest that the Whips exercised a sort of tyranny over MPs and that they had, destroyed the independence of the Commons - outrageous suggestion but nothing much has changed there either!
But let's move on to today and where we are now.
The primary role of the Chief Whip (and the Whips) is to get the Government’s business through Parliament. In particular to make sure the Government gets a majority on the votes on its legislation. So, that means - as it always has done - keeping MPs informed of forthcoming Parliamentary business, making sure MPs attend important debates, and support their party in any votes. The Whips make sure: that there are enough speakers in debates; that the key debating points are made; and as Abel mentioned in the 50’s, have the job of “cheering the Minister”. For regular watchers of Parliament, the cries of 'hear hear' are often instigated by the Whip on the bench. There is always a Whip sitting on the front bench - noting down who speaks well, who has performed badly and if any Points of Order are raised that have implications for a Minister. And always keeping an eye on the business to make sure everyone is in their place when they should be. Although much of the Parliamentary business is limited by time constraints' it doesn't necessarily mean all that time will be used. So items of Parliamentary business can begin earlier than anticipated. If you are watching Parliament and see a Whip frantically running around, it's probably a Whip desperately trying to locate the Minister who didn't realise the next item of business started early and they need to be at the dispatch box!
For the poor Whip, as they are Ministers - if no Departmental Minister is present, then it's the Whip who has to stand in for them - give a speech made up on the spot and with no briefing!
Whips also have a Whitehall Department or two to work with and they will be responsible for managing any Bills that department brings forward. They will also have a flock of about 25 MPs who they look after and there are also other administrative responsibilities that are divided between them - for instance one will be in charge of liaising with the Clerks of the House each day about how the business and votes are managed. And I've mentioned the accommodation Whip already which is another
Parliament sometimes feels like a stage with the Whips as the stage managers - the Whips turn the lights on at the beginning of the day, make sure it all runs smoothly and put the cat out and turns the lights off at the end of the day.
Through the Chief Whip along with business managers, the Leader of the House, the Prime Minister and with some collaboration of the Whitehall Departments the business of the House is arranged. No small feat when one considers the administrative arrangements for a Bill. It all starts with the publication of a Bill or draft Bill; then possible pre legislative scrutiny; the a day for the 2nd Reading must be found on the floor of the House; then committee stages need to be timetabled for several weeks at a time; then a day or two for the Report Stage of the Bill again on the floor of the House along with 3rd Reading; then off it goes down to - what we call the other end - so the Lords if the Bill started in the Commons. And then the whole process repeated at the other end. Then back the bill comes to where it started for consideration of Lords amendments on the floor of the House. Then finally 'ping pong' where the Bill can be batted to and fro from one end to the other till agreement is found.
And there may be several bills on the go at the same time - confused - you wouldn't be alone! That's just one of the jobs that the Chief Whip will need to organise. The Chief Whip is in charge of mapping out the detailed timing for the Government's programme of business and estimating the likely time needed through the usual channels (a word about that curious phase in a minute). But also mindful of the other constraints' on time due to standing orders and statute law which require business to be completed by certain dates.
But Whipping is also a job of management and persuasion. The stories about the techniques used by the Whips to persuade backbenchers are often exaggerated. But as traditionally Whips never speak about their work -with regard to the truth of stories you may have heard - in the words of Francis Urquhart - I couldn’t possibly comment. The vow of silence on entering the Whips office is unbreakable.
However these days there is certainly an important element of carrot as well as stick in the way Whips persuade Members to do the right thing and support their Party. Whips today need to be good personal managers. It's not just about telling people what to do its about passing messages up to those making decisions, explaining why some MPs might have a problems with policy or legislation and passing messages back down. It's about making sure very over worked Ministers take the time to meet back benchers and explain the issues - it's a job that needs sensitive handling to find compromise. Therefore the Chief Whip has an important role advising the Cabinet and the PM about the likely acceptability of its legislative proposals to the backbenchers.
A less well known side of the Whips work is to provide a link between the Government and Opposition parties and other important figures within Parliament. These relationships are often referred to as the ‘usual channels’ - I mentioned this earlier. The usual channels - the largely informal and private network of communication that the Whips Office operate. Through the usual channels unbreakable gentlemen's agreements are made to organise the timetabling of committees, the distribution between parties of select committee chairs, when votes occur and a whole host of other issues. And in particular ‘pairing’ to make sure that some leeway is given to MPs who cannot be there for votes due to illness, family circumstances or cross party trips away from Westminster. The surprising thing about the Whips office is that you work closer with the Opposition Parties than in any other role.
There is also support from civil servants who work to help the usual channels run smoothly acting as non-partisan deal-brokers between the Government and Opposition parties. A notable feature of the post of Private Secretary to the Chief Whip is the length of service of previous office holders; since the creation of the post in 1919 there have only been four Private Secretaries - must be a fun job
So how many of us are there? There is the Chief Whip, the Deputy Chief Whip and then three of the Government Whips are officially members of Her Majesty’s Household. The Deputy Chief Whip is the Treasurer of the Household; then there is the Comptroller of the Household and Vice-Chamberlain of the Household (that's me). The Whips who are Members of the Royal Household accompany the Sovereign and Royal Household at various diplomatic and social events..
The next layer down in the Government Whips Office are the Lord Commissioners of the Treasury - they get to sign off certain documents and sometimes even cheques by virtue of their office. And then there are the junior Whips.
Whips even though they are non departmental Ministers are silent on everything! They are a policy free zone - and they don’t speak or sign anything - but for those reasons - they get priority access to Ministers about constituency matters.
Finally a word about my Role
I am the Whip who holds the title of Vice-Chamberlain to Her Majesty's Household. I am one of those three Whips who are Members of the Royal household. The role of Vice Chamberlain dates back to the reign of Edward III and there are only 5 women to have ever held the post. I am given a white staff as a wand of office by Her Majesty the Queen and together with the other 2 Members of the Royal Household we walk down the Queen's passage at garden parties with our white staves and along with the royal equerries find suitable guests for the Lord Chamberlain to introduce to the Queen.
In a tradition which has its origins in the seventeenth century, before the Queen’s speech at the State Opening of Parliament all three of us travel to Buckingham Palace carrying our ceremonial white staves. However the Vice Chamberlain doesn't return straight away! The Vice Chamberlain is kept prisoner during the State Opening and has to remain at Buckingham Palace as a hostage for the Queen’s safe return. It was said that should a group of militant anti-monarchists manage to abseil down from the public galleries during the Queen’s speech and snatch Her Majesty from under their Lordship’s noses, the hapless Vice-Chamberlain would find himself or herself indefinitely detained in the Palace - well there could be worse places to be detained!
The Vice Chamberlain writes to Her Majesty every day and the letter is printed out and put in her red box every night. The purpose is to inform Her Majesty about what has happened in the House that day. Although it is well known that she enjoys something reasonably light hearted with a few snippets of tea room gossip as well. The Vice-Chamberlain also presents herself to the House of Commons to report the Queen’s answers to addresses from the House. For me this role deserved a pair of high heeled shoes - something I never wear. When I was appointed I decided that it had to be high heels - the boys wear morning dress - so for me walking backwards in high heels brought a new challenge to my life as an MP!
And there we have it - a quick look at the Whips and Whipping. Do you know more than when I began? I hope so
Do you know about the things you REALLY really wanted to know? I hope not because if you did I would have betrayed some secrets. But I hope what I have shared is an insight into how the Whips Office operates in one of the greatest democratic institutions in the world. In the House of Commons on 11th November 1947 Churchill said, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." And I have to agree.
It's by no means perfect but with elections a short time ahead we should remember to value what we have. Nurture it, improve it but value it.
And remember how lucky we are. Around the world - every minute of every day - someone will be putting their life at risk to fight for the right to vote. We have that right and we should use that right whenever we are given the opportunity.
If you or someone you know is thinking about not voting - I would ask you to ask them - to give a thought for that which they discard so easily - when others would literally die for the right and the privilege.