By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter.
Commons whips have existed since roughly the time of the first reform act. Never in the scores of years that have passed since has their work been more difficult than today.
- In the long term, there has been a gradual change in the role of MPs. Not all that long ago, they were elected representatives, free to work and earn outside the Commons. During recent years, they have gradually morphed into professional politicians, who by definition are largely dependent on the taxpayer. On the whole, this is a change for the worse, but it has had one specific big beneficial effect: MPs have been transfomed from remote figures into constituency champions, under relentless consumer pressure to improve their performance. So in the relentless tug of war between their constituents and the whips, the former increasingly tend to win out.
- In the medium term, there has been the impact of the expenses scandal. While it was still raging, Gordon Brown pushed further registration requirements on outside earnings through the Commons – which has accentuated the trend to professionalisation I refer to above. Outside earnings have been pressured. Pay has been frozen. And the expenses system has been overhauled (good) and bureaucratised (bad). The resettlement allowance may go. MPs' pension contributions may be raised further. One experienced Conservative MP of my acquaitance argues that armies tend to revolt not over battles and losses, but over pay and rations. Personal discontent is enhancing lobby revolt.
- In the short term, there is the effect of Commons reform. Select committee chairmen and members are now elected. An elected backbench business committee has been created. The House of Lords may be partly or fully elected. All but the last of these measures are to the good, and are a credit to the Government. And they reduce the power of the Executive: the whips can no longer dangle select committee chairmanships or peerages or knighthoods – given their reduction – before discontented MPs. The revolt of the 81 took place on a backbench business motion. It is worth nothing that both the Tory MPs selected by full open primary joined it – Sarah Wollaston and Caroline Dinenage.
Given that there has never been a more difficult time to be a whip, how are they coping?
There are good reports about individuals. These include Stephen Crabb, Philip Dunne and Jeremy Wright. Robert Goodwill, the new pairing whip, has brought his calm and sense to the post. The duo at the top of the whips office, Patrick McLoughlin and John Randall, are experienced, shrewd and grasp the scale of the challenge.
But there is bad report about the system as a whole – in particular, about the relationship between the whips office and Number 10. Claims that it took a different view to Downing Street about whipping the EU referendum vote are vehemently denied. But what matters most is less fact than perception: senior whips are not perceived by their colleagues as part of Cameron's top team.
Blame for these woes is apportioned variously. Ministers I've spoken to tend to pitch it at the door of Number 10: "There's nothing wrong with the whips. It's just that Cameron won't listen to them," one told me. But members of the new intake are far more critical. One unhappy loyalist (and there are plenty around) described them to me as "lacking flair, finesse and feel".
Many of his colleagues are less blunt but equally dismissive. MPs are seldom exhilerated with their lot, and I would discount much of this as the usual grumbling were I not hearing it so much, so often. Part of the problem is the clash between the military inheritance of the whips office and the civilian ethos of the modern Commons.
The whips of the Heath and Thatcher years tended to include taciturn men who had often seen distinguished war service and to whom loyalty was a watchword: Carol Mather, Robert Boscawen. But collective memory of wartime has eroded and the culture of Westminster is changing – for the reasons I set out above.
Younger MPs who have worked under flatter management structures in which women are better represented (with the departure of Chloe Smith, only one female whip remains) don't always respond to appeal to loyalty – not least in the rise of the age of the constituency champion. And, as we've seen, the whips have fewer inducements to offer.
I'm in no doubt whatsoever that they understand the problem as well as anyone. And they cannot transform themselves overnight, as some would wish, into a Careers Advice Service (though on the quiet they do a lot of what can euphemistically be described as personnel work). As I've argued before, being an MP is not a job, and therefore has no career path.
There will always be political parties in the Commons. And where there are parties, there will always be whips, in one form or other: Enoch Powell is believed to have said that whips are as necessary a part of Parliament as sewers are of civilisation, and this mordant figure of speech is worth dwelling on: abolishing the former would have similar effects to abolishing the latter.
But this is not to say that matters can simply carry on as they are. Tim recommended earlier this week that Alistair Burt be returned to the Whips Office alongside Greg Hands. But in my view what needs shaking up is not so much personnel as practice (though the office is a bit 2005-intake heavy and rather woman-light) – in Downing Street as well as the Commons.
- Whips Office. One backbencher told me that he was texted (not rung: texted) at mid-day before the start of the Europe referendum debate, and asked if he would be supporting the Government – in the spirit of this being a reasonable assumption that only required a late check. Another told me that his whip has not asked him this year about his views, concerns, ideas, suggestions. This is bad whipping. Perhaps good whipping is cracking under time pressure – as whips, no less than other MPs, try to keep afloat amidst the rising tide of e-mails and texts, Facebook and Twitter messages. If so, some of these will have to wait.
- There will always be fewer Ministerial vacancies than there are ambitious aspirants. But there are other means of soothing the sensibilities of troubled backbenches. Some want Cabinet speakers for constituencies. Others represent marginal seats and are angling for Treasury funds. Still more have campaigning and policy proposals. The whips should be consulting their charges more frequently than some of them are doing now. And if they aren't formally required to do three times or do during the Parliamentary year, they should be.
- Downing Street. Historians and peers are better placed to judge the degree to which Margaret Thatcher and John Major confided in their Chief Whips than I am. Or whether either involved themselves in individual votes as much as David Cameron and George Osborne have done (occasionally counter-productively). But neither allowed the perception to develop that they trusted their own whipping capabilities more than those they had appointed to do the job. Number Ten is placing senior whips in a parlous position. I feel somehow that this appeal for it to act otherwise will fall on deaf ears.