Working in the Commons can often feel like being back at school. There’s the freshly elected MPs trying desperately to fit in at the start of every new Parliament. A bell to mark the beginning and end of the day, as well as each vote in between. Prayers every morning. And recesses. Lots of recesses.
Somewhere in this odd mix can be found the school prefects, or in parliamentary terms, the whips. In the not too distant past a call from one’s whip would strike fear into the heart of even the most intrepid MP. Their powers of persuasion are legendary. Don’t play ball and you might just find that promotion you’ve been working towards your whole career slips away. That bit of extra support you were promised at the next election doesn’t materialise. Or that office you’ve had your eye on, given to someone else. By hook or by crook, it’s their job to make sure you keep to the script.
So how has it gone so wrong? In short, the whips’ office simply isn’t filled with people of the same calibre, stature or experience as days gone by. MPs are, by nature, strong-willed individuals. To guarantee their loyalty, you need to hold their respect, something that’s quite evidently lacking at the current time.
Out of the eight assistant whips in post today, six were first elected in 2015. They haven’t even really begun to cut their teeth in the dark corridors of Westminster yet, let alone build up any sort of power base from which to operate. Yet these are the MPs expected to keep in check colleagues who far outrank them by almost any measure – seniority, fame, political adeptness. Why, as an MP with twenty-five years’ experience under your belt, would you listen to some overly ambitious upstart who was elected to the House just three years ago, and in all probability, you helped get to that position in the first place? The pecking order is all wrong. Put simply, the current whips are too low down the food chain to be of any effect.
This inexperience rises all the way to the top and to the Chief Whip, Julian Smith. U-turns at every corner, hastily arranged conciliatory meetings with senior ministers, and plans that sound like they’ve been put together on the back of a fag packet. Sound familiar? They’re the hallmarks of a whips’ office that has lost control.
Just this evening, another text pleading with colleagues to put out a message in support of the Prime Minister, this time from Chris Pincher, the Deputy Chief Whip, was leaked to the press. Not only does this smack of desperation, it also shows a real political naivety. This was always going to make its way into the public domain, and whilst some can say it’s just another tactic of the dark arts employed by the whips every day (send the message to a select few, and when it leaks, rat out the rotten apples), that affords the whips too much credit. To me, it smells of sheer incompetence.
Party discipline is at an all-time low. The odd rogue MP here and there is unavoidable. Mass insubordination, on the other hand, is unforgivable. If the Prime Minister wants to get her house in order, she should look no further than to her whips.