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Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson: It's the whips' job to bully, curse and browbeat. But on Lords reform next week, backbenchers must stand up to them.

WARNING. This column contains strong language, albeit in an abbreviated form (which it was not when originally uttered). It is not for those of a sensitive disposition, still less for anyone who believes that the inner chambers of Westminster resemble the governance of a Brownie pack in Tunbridge Wells. Do not permit it to be read by your wife, daughters or female servants.

The irresistible force is heading straight for the immovable object. Next week, the Government is expected to move a timetable motion on House of Lords reform. If it is defeated, the Bill will fall. No government would be crazy enough to march in to an endless filibuster, especially when the public could not care less about the issue. The Whips will be active, swearing horrible oaths, scattering blood-curdling threats. That is their job. They will no doubt do it well. But they must be ignored and resisted. The integrity of the British constitution is under threat from a silly, thoughtless measure. Every Tory MP worthy of the name has a duty to rebel.

Whips can be fearsome. Back in 1981, I was having dinner with Matthew Parris, then an MP. Suddenly, a look of panic spread across his face. "F**k" he expleted: "I'm about to miss a vote". We shot into a taxi and spurred it back to the Commons. Matthew ran like a hare towards the lobbies, shouting "see you in the Kremlin" over his shoulder. A few minutes later, he joined me in that most delightfully disreputable boozery. He had indeed missed the division, and was looking most unhappy. He had been cornered by the late Spencer le Marchant, all six-and-a-half feet of him, ex-Grenadier Guards, with a voice to match. "He called he me a c***", said Matthew. "Indeed, he told me that I was a useless c***: much the most useless in the long, squalid history of that despicable genre. I'd never had any prospects in the Commons. Never. But if there had ever been even a glimmer of a scintilla of a prospect, it was gone now. Gone. Gone for good. There would be no redemption, in this world or the next".

Matthew Parris is tough, morally, physically and mentally. But not at that moment. He was chastened. I tried to reassure him that this was the sort of way Whips would treat first-term backbenchers who had missed a vote, and that he should not let it depress him. He was not easily persuaded. It took him at least three drinks to regain his equilibrium. Spencer had done his work well. Bollocked, Matthew stayed bollocked.

I ran into Spencer a couple of days later on the terrace. "How's my friend Matthew Parris getting on?" "Oh, d'you know him? Isn't he a delightful fellow? Very able". When not on the rampage, Spencer enjoyed dispensing champagne in Imperial pints and collecting Whistler etchings. Peyton Skipwith, who ran the Fine Art Society for many years, says that Spencer once brought him a gin and tonic, into the sea, at Tangiers. But when duty requied rampageousness, Spencer never failed.

There is a similar story from the old Labour party. Not long after Harold Wilson won the 1966 Election, the Labour leadership felt that Parliamentary discipline was not all it should be. So the Chief Whip, John Silkin - an odd choice for that post - was promoted and replaced by Bob Mellish, a former stevedore from Bermondsey, with a demeanour to match.

Shortly afterwards, one of the more academic members of the new intake sauntered into the Whips' Office and addressed the pairing Whip in lordly tones. "Sorry, Fred: won't be able to make the division this evening. Going to a dinner of the Political Economy Club. P.M.'s speaking to us". In other words, "well above your pay grade, oik".

The would-be political economist had committed a hideous stategic error. Bob Mellish was in the Office. He swung round. "If you f***ing think you're missink a f***ing division because you'll be feeding your f***ing fice at some f***ing posh do, you've another f*** think comin'." Voice rising to a roar, face thrust right into the MP's one: "YOU'LL BE THERE AND YOU'LL BE VOTIN' ". Voice drops to a more respectful level: after all, the Chief Whip is about to refer to his Prime Minister. "An' if that f***ing Wilson thinks 'e's missink a f***ing division, 'e's got another f***ing think comin' an' all".

I hope that politics is not growing soft. It would be so dispiriting to think that Whips no longer spoke like that. Pat McLoughlin, the current Chief, started his working life down a mine. He knows how to intimidate, as he should. Even so, this is a time for all good men not to come to the aid of the party. Save up the stories, boast about who had the biggest blasting - but wear the Whips' verbal bruises as battle scars. Moreover, the threats may not be as serious as they sound. Given that most of the ablest members of the recent intakes are among the rebels, the authorities will simply be unable to cut them all off from promotion. Those who stand firm will be able to take a quiet pride in their resolution. Those who have refused to join the rebellion may well come to reget their decision. As for anyone who backslid at this stage: he would deserve to spend eternity being used for target practice by Spencer le Marchant and Bob Mellish.

But that must be an empty threat. No Tory MP, dead, living or yet unborn, could possibly be guilty of such infamy.


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