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In defence of the Whips' Office against the attack of Tim Montgomerie

The recommendations of Tim's post about Graham Brady's 1922 Chairmanship election this morning here include the following suggestion: "Modernise the Whips' Office".

In making it, Tim draws a parallel between being an MP and working in "most modern offices" (by implication, private sector offices). But is it right?

Modern offices support modern companies, and the main aim of modern companies, like their predecessors, is to make money.  In other words, they're goal-orientated.

But MPs don't work for a private sector company. Indeed, there's no consensus on who they work for in the first place.  To some, MPs should be professional politicians, who work for their constituents, and should thus be barred from working or earning outside the Commons.  To others, MPs should be citizen legislators, who shouldn't be a separate political class, and should thus be encouraged to so work and earn, rather than be dependent on the taxpayer.  You take your view and make your choice.

Nor is what an MP does goal-orientated.  Should his aim be to represent his constituents?  If so - and so only - it follows that MPs shouldn't be allowed to be Ministers.  After all, what's working part-time in a Whitehall Ministry got to do with representing a constituency - and more than working part-time in a doctor's surgery, a City office or a barrister's chambers?  And if an MP's goal shouldn't just be representing his constituents, what else should it be?  Being Prime Minister?  Being a Minister at all? Being a Select Committee Chairman?  Again, you make your choice and take your view.

This lack of consensus is the best possible introduction to thinking about whipping.  The function of Whips can't be to manage MPs' careers - because they don't have careers as such.  It is and will always be mainly to manage Party Parliamentary business.  Indeed, the Whips are named after whippers-in - the men whose task it was to stop hounds from wandering away from the pack.

I've never ridden to hounds, and know nothing about keeping a pack together. But I suspect that every hound has a different character, and that a good whipper-in works accordingly.  It's peculiar work - and peculiar work tends to produce peculiar customs.  Being wholly unsuited to the task, I never served as a Whip, and don't know if the legendary customs of the Whips Office - the most junior Whip serving champagne at Whips' meetings, bibulous Whips' dinners at which each does a comic turn, the labelling of some hapless backbencher as "s**t of the week" - still take place, if they ever did.

It's undeniable that Whips tend to cherish their history, not to mention their reputation.  One ex-graduate of the office, Gyles Brandreth, based much of his diaries and the whole of a play on the Whips Office (called, inevitably, "Whipping it Up").  As late as the last Parliament, and for all I know during this one, legends of "the Maastricht Bill", and of the role of the Whips during it, lurked in Commons corridors like stale cigar smoke.  Tim's right to point to the martial roots of this culture.  Not so very long ago, the Whips' Office indeed had a military character. Whips tended to be taciturn men with distinguished military records - Sir Robert Boscawen, Sir Carol Mather - whose charges themselves were marked by the war years.

And Tim's right again to say that today's MPs can't be managed like those of the 1950s - or even of the 1990s.  But one of the best-kept secrets of the Commons is that...they're not.  During my eight years there, the Whips tended to work by persuasion rather than blandishment.  It's true that since the Party was in Opposition, they were deprived of patronage to promise - and thus had little choice.  But the change wasn't driven wholly by circumstance.  Whips tended to mutter quietly into their beers that times had changed.  As the last election approached, Alistair Burt, now gloriously transposed to the Foreign Office, was drafted into the Whips Office to manage "career development", look for incentives, encourage other words, to take many of the actions which Tim recommended earlier today (and at which I raise a sceptical eyebrow).

But if this news hasn't been broken to the world, it isn't his's the Whips' themselves.  If the case for selecting rather than electing Select Committee members goes unmade, don't blame backbenchers...blame the Whips, who know the arguments back-to-front.  If the Whips don't like carrying the can for blunders that are the Leader's, not theirs (such as his unforced error in relation to the '22, which will have horrified them)...well, that's what they're there for.  That's their vocation, I'm afraid.

And if dissatisfaction still lingers, they know what to do.  Namely, to break radically with custom and convention, and persuade the Chief Whip to grant, let's say, an interview in which he can make the case for the Whips to the world.

He could give such an interview to - let's imagine - a journalist who's prepared to be critical, but has perhaps a little insight into how the Commons works; who wouldn't dream of tampering with the facts to suit his former colleagues, but has a certain sympathy for their work.  A journalist such as, for example...but no, no: modesty forbids...

Paul Goodman


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