When most people hear the word "whip" they think of a rider thrashing a horse’s flank, Harrison Ford’s heroics as Indiana Jones or a mean muscle-bound giant taking a cat o’nine tails to a prisoner’s back. If only it was that exciting!
At the end of June I was invited by the Conservative Chief Whip to be an Opposition Whip and I was happy to accept the promotion. For the first time I found myself sitting on the Opposition "front bench". Two months later I have to smile when I think how different the reality of the job is from the foggy and sometimes fanciful notions I had back then.
Parliamentary debate may sometimes look like a street fight or a scrum but it is in fact highly organised and the Whips are the sheepdogs – hardworking collies – that keep it that way. The Tory flock is a hundred and sixty six strong and every day it must get through the gate, down the road and into the shed. Ten of us, working together as a team, nudge the leaders and nip the laggards to keep the pack moving from their offices to the floor of the House of Commons and back again. Now and then one breaks rank – and you’ll hear barking when that happens – but ordinarily Members pass through the voting lobbies and once done, run off back into their busy fields again.
We Whips have a communal office just a few yards away from the Chamber where we work out the herd movements that have to happen to keep the House of Commons’ wheels spinning. We decide in what order each of our MPs will speak during debates, the order of business in the days ahead and we remind our flocks (we look after about fifteen Members each) when votes are going to take place. When the division (voting) bells ring – day or night – and MPs hurry in we stand and point them to the correct lobby (basically a small box room) through which they pass to record their names and votes. We count up votes, double check them, confer with the Government Whips then walk forward to the Speaker’s chair to pass him the official count.
Parliament can only operate efficiently if people stick to what has been agreed. If someone is given ten minutes to speak but they ramble on for fifteen, someone else has to be cut short by a full five minutes. So in the Chamber and all of the various Committees, we take notes on proceedings.
We vote of course. We are Members after all, but generally we do not work on policy ourselves and we do not meet with or talk to the press, Those are jobs for people on the front line – those who have shadow ministerial posts or attachments to Government Departments. We’re the backroom boys.
Although we are in opposition, we Whips have to work very closely with the Government Whips to keep business moving and keep the Commons voting. We are also confidants, friendly ears and sounding boards. When someone wants to vote against the party line, it’s our job to try and pursuade them not to and to alert the party leadership. When someone takes a vacation or needs time off, we know first. When a Member has a special request – maybe to speak or to move a motion – we’re the people to ask.
All in all, it’s a job that is part sheepdog, part Sergeant Major and part school teacher. Either way it’s a lot of work but a lot of fun. More than anything it shows you the value of cohesion, teamwork and discipline without which Parliament would simply grind to a halt.