By Paul Goodman
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The most thankless task in any front bench team is the job of pairing whip – the number three post in the Whips' Office. He is the man who in effect tells Conservatives MPs whether or not they will be required for any vote. This means calculating how important any particular division will be, whether it's likely to be won or lost, whether Ministers must be hauled back to Westminster from Northern Ireland or visits abroad, whether MPs who plead urgent constituency business, family difficulties or travel problems should be allowed to go or asked to stay, and so on.
Quite properly, he cannot force anyone to do anything, and must rely on the solidarity and patience without which there'd be no Parliamentary Party at all – particularly in the case of some older MPs who have bid ambition farewell, and have little incentive to appease the Whips. One or two in my time in the Commons – Douglas Hogg being perhaps the most vivid example – liked it make it very clear that they hadn't been elected by voters to be given instructions by whips. I remember Peter Luff doing the job with charm and John Hayes doing it with force.
The most effective was probably John Randall, now Deputy Chief Whip, a mordant figure whose jokes have Ronnie Barker timing. Michael Fabricant has held the post in Government to date, and been the subject of a steady flow of complaints from backbenchers. I have discounted some of these as the usual grumbling from those who'd rather leave the Commons early than sit late, but there's been too much around for it to be dismissed altogether. Fabricant is an energetic character with a fizzy style, and won't have liked some MPs trying not to pull their weight.
At any rate, a quiet note went out to the Parliamentary Party from the whips yesterday which contained in passing the news that there has been a reshuffle of responsibilites in the Whips Office, which include the replacement of Fabricant by Robert Goodwill. Goodwill has the knowing air of a man no longer shocked by the less salubrious aspects of human nature. Perhaps his years in the European Parliament are responsible for this. I will risk the worst pun in the world by writing that faced with the most rebellious party in modern times he'll need all the goodwill he can get.