This post first appeared on the PSA Parliaments Group blog on 7 November 2018.
In a recent interview in The Sunday Times, the Conservative MP, Andrew Griffiths, discussed the circumstances which led him to send a series of sexually explicit text messages to two female bar workers in his constituency. Newspaper revelations about his sexual misconduct prompted Griffiths’ resignation earlier this year as Minister for Small Businesses and may yet see his expulsion from the Conservative Party.
Whatever the unsavoury circumstances of his actions, Griffiths’ interview also revealed the central role played by the government whips office in providing support for the errant MP and ensuring he sought treatment for his deteriorating mental condition as the story of his sexual misconduct broke. In the interview, Griffiths claims to have contemplated suicide following the public revelations about his behaviour. Two things, he claims, saved his life. The first, understandably, was the impact such a course of action would have on his wife and child. The second, he claimed, was the Chief Whip, ‘who contacted parliament’s doctor and got me into hospital.’
The role of party whips in providing pastoral support for Members of Parliament is not widely appreciated. The common perception of the government whip is of the parliamentary enforcer, ensuring, by fair means or foul, although perhaps more often the latter, that MPs toe the party line. This is a view epitomised by Francis Urquart in Michael Dobbs’ parliamentary thriller, House of Cards. Although Urquart is undoubtedly a caricature, he does have some basis in reality. Long-serving MPs will occasionally provide stomach-churning stories of the whips on the offensive. In his guide for new members, How to be an MP, the soon to retire Labour MP, Paul Flynn, observes that:
… frightening tales are whispered about the overpowering bullying by the honourable thugs of yesterday. I witnessed a cowering, tearful young MP pinned to a wall of the ‘No’ lobby by the fat gut of a sixteen stone whip yelling his charm offensive message: ‘I have two words to say to you – fucking coward’. The whip then waddled off to share the same potent words with half a dozen other Tories who had disobeyed the whips’ instructions. (p.117)
Although academic accounts have tended to focus more on the managerial role of the whips, in his 2002 book, Revolts and Rebellions, Philip Cowley observed that coercion was still a feature of their work:
The whips can (and did) make life less pleasant for the troublesome. They can (and did) deny places on the more prestigious select committees, deny time away from the House, deny time for overseas trips, deny promotion, deny better office space and so on. (p.151)
The whips could also Cowley claims , ‘revert to good old-fashioned physical bullying at times’, quoting one a Labour MP who described the whips as ‘extremely unpleasant’. ‘When I say they bully you, I really mean physically bully you.’
However, as both Flynn and Cowley make clear the role of the whips is more diverse than this and may also be changing. In recent years the election of select committee chairs and members has, for example, eroded the whips’ powers of patronage; while concerns about bullying in Parliament may well serve to prevent a repeat of the excesses of previous generations of whips. Moreover, the whips have always had a role which extended beyond the application of the stick and the distribution of carrots. Many academic studies have emphasised the whips’ role in managing business in parliament, working across parties to ensure the smooth passage of business and supporting MPs in the chamber.
Others, including current and former whips, have stressed the pastoral role of the whips in supporting members who are experiencing difficulties in their life beyond Westminster. While clearly not disinterested supporters, whips can nevertheless provide a vital support network for MPs struggling to combine a high profile public persona with demands in their personal life. One current Conservative whip, Andrew Stephenson, claims that in addition to ensuring the smooth passage of government business, ‘whips also play a pastoral role helping with other MPs professional and even personal problems.’ The affable, Gyles Brandreth was a whip in the Conservative government of John Major. His Westminster diaries, Breaking the Code, provide a nuanced and revealing insight into the pastoral role of the whip. On one occasion, Brandreth records, he sought the advice of the Speaker’s Chaplain, Canon Donald Gray, regarding how to deal with members experiencing a breakdown:
[A] couple of our charges are in a bad way, one especially so – bit of a breakdown – nowhere to go – what to do? Donald thinks there may be a monastery that could take him – provide space, solace, peace, a chance to recuperate, and he’d be within reach for critical votes…
This is part and parcel of the Whips’ service. We do care. We do try to help. We do say, ‘Here’s a doctor who can help,’ ‘Have you thought of AA?’ ‘Here’s a lawyer / accountant / shrink who can sort you out.’ When bankruptcy looms we do look to ways to help bail them out… Yes we’re doing it to safeguard the majority, secure the Government’s business, but we’re also doing it because it’s good man-management. I don’t know why we can’t be more open about our role, our functions, how we operate. We’re not Freemasons, we’re Members of Parliament trying to make the system work in the best interests of party, government and country. (p.424)
This pastoral role can, of course, be subject to abuse. There is a long-standing suspicion that the whips have been involved in covering up wrong doing, storing up evidence of illicit activities including sexual misconduct, in order to provide them with political leverage at a later date, rather than passing it to the relevant authorities. Claims that the Conservative whips office held a black book of members’ indiscretions may be a (self-serving) part of the mythology of the whips office, but even in their pastoral role the whips’ ultimate responsibility is to the party rather than to the individual. It is the whips who ensure that members who are unwell can be away from the House, but when a narrow vote looms it is also the whips who will arrange for members to be collected from hospital and wheeled into the chamber in order to cast their vote in the division lobby. Whips manage the practice of pairing which allows MPs to be miss a vote for personal or health reasons by holding back one of their own MPs from the vote, but whips have also been involved in unilaterally breaking pairs when it is politically expedient to do so.
There is a role for the whips in ensuring the smooth running of the House and providing support for members facing personal difficulties, even when these are self-inflicted. As the Griffiths case makes clear, the pastoral role of the whips is sometimes vital in ensuring that Members of Parliament get the support they need. In the current climate of concern regarding bullying in Parliament, it would, perhaps, be beneficial if their role was somewhat more transparent and governed by some clear ethical guidelines.