Can the Independent Group of MPs survive?

Photo by Jessica Taylor, official House of Commons photographer @Jess_Taylor_

One of the consequences of Britain’s protracted and disorganised attempt to leave the European Union has been the decision of a group of MPs, seven Labour and three Conservative, to leave their parties and establish a new Independent Group in Parliament. The Independent Group is not a political party although it is assumed that at some point they will seek to become one. This post identifies some of the challenges facing The Independent Group in seeking to establish themselves at Westminster and to attract electoral support. It argues that the two-party system is the product of the electoral system, underpinned by the media and embedded in the practices and procedures of the House of Commons. It suggests, however, that the answer to this may not lie in The Independent Group seeking to establish themselves as a new political party but rather in embracing their independence.

The electoral system

There is a widely-held assumption that the British electoral system will strangle at birth the aspirations of any newly formed political party which hopes to have a national impact. The first-past-the-post electoral system rewards winners but offers nothing for those coming second. Widespread national support will not deliver seats in Parliament, unless it is combined with concentrated local support. The most striking example of this was provided by the 1983 general election when the SDP-Liberal Alliance won 25.4% of the vote, but only 23 seats. More recently, in the 2015 general election the UK Independence Party attracted almost four million votes, 12.6% of the vote, but only managed to win one seat.

According to this view if it is to have any prospect of success the newly formed Independent Group of MPs must quickly form itself into a political party and embrace electoral reform as the only means of real electoral impact. This was the approach adopted by those MPs who broke-away from the Labour Party in 1981 and quickly formed the SDP. As a third party attempting to usurp the two-party domination of British politics, electoral reform has remained a core plank of Liberal Party policy to the present day.

The media

The two-party system is also locked in by the UK media. Britain has a highly partisan press but while the support of the print media fluctuates between the Conservative and Labour parties, smaller parties have struggled to gain support or coverage. For most of the post-war period more than 90% of UK press share, in terms of circulation, has fallen to the two main parties. The winning party at each general election since 1979 has enjoyed a larger press share than share of the vote. In contrast the electoral fortunes of some of the smaller parties has exceeded their press share. The combined circulation of those newspapers supporting parties other than the main two accounts for less than 10% of the total press circulation in the UK. Only one national daily newspaper supported the Liberal Democrats in 2010 (The Guardian) and 2015 (The Independent) and none in 2017. The Daily Express supported UKIP in 2015 but switched back to the Conservatives in 2017.

Broadcasters in the UK have a duty to be impartial but are not required to give equal weight or airtime to all parties. Ofcom expects that broadcasters will provide ‘appropriate’ coverage of smaller parties, but if the electoral system ensures that a large majority of seats will continue to be held by the two main parties, this will be reflected in the broadcast coverage. This may vary in the different parts of the UK, but a party wishing to appeal to voters across the UK may struggle to justify an appeal for more airtime.


Independent MPs and those from smaller parties may also struggle to have an impact in Parliament. As Louise Thompson has shown the two-party system is embedded in the practices and procedures at Westminster. Parliament is dominated by the Executive and the Official Opposition (Labour) enjoys privileges which are not extended to other parties. Independent Group MPs may struggle to contribute to debates, they are likely to be called to speak later, if they are called at all, when time is short. They are also likely to be further down the pecking order when tabling amendments and will struggle to get seats on bill committees which scrutinise legislation.

Several of the Independent Group MPs currently hold prominent seats on select committees but these may come under threat. Labour has moved motions to remove its former MPs, Mike Gapes and Ian Austin from the Foreign Affairs Committee and Chris Leslie from the International Trade Committee. The Conservative Party has not yet indicated that it will seek to remove its former MPs from select committees, but Independent Group MP, Sarah Wollaston who chairs the Health and Social Care and the powerful Liaison Committee, may find her position threatened.

The Independent Group may also struggle for resources. They are no longer able to draw on the not inconsiderable resources available to a national political party. So-called Short Money, parliamentary funding which is available to parties with seats in the House of Commons to provide administrative and research support, will not be available to The Independent Group unless and until they become a political party. Limited resources will impact on their day to day operation as a group in Parliament but also on their ability to contest elections.

Should The Independent Group become a political party?

One obvious first step towards long-term sustainability would be for The Independent Group to register as a political party. This would allow them greater access to parliamentary resources and perhaps parliamentary positions and time. With eleven MPs they would have as many seats in the House of Commons as the Liberal Democrats. Registering as a political party would also give them an identity and allow the inclusion of a party name and other identity marks such as a logo to appear on ballot papers. Establishing an identity might be particularly helpful given that The Independent Group comprises MPs who previously sat on both sides of the House of Commons. Registering as a political party would also bring certain responsibilities in relation to transparency about their funding. This may also be beneficial given that the group has already been subject to some unpleasant sniping about the sources of their funding.

However, The Independent Group are not obliged to register as a political party and are not required to do so in order to stand in elections in the UK. Moreover, while there is a widespread assumption that political parties are the only vehicle for electoral success in the UK, this is not the case and there are several reasons why they may choose to retain their current status, at least for the time being.

Perhaps the most significant asset of The Independent Group is their independence. The fact that they are not a political party, and moreover, that they comprise MPs from across the political spectrum may appeal to voters who are tired of the established parties and in particular their inability to set aside narrow party concerns in order to manage Britain’s exit from the European Union. Retaining this independent status may also help them to gloss over the obvious policy differences which exist within the group. The rigid application of party discipline may be necessary for parties which hope to form a government, but it is not clear that party whipping is understood or appreciated by the public, who may be more inclined to vote for candidates who can justifiably claim to put their views first.

The Independent Group may also be able to take advantage of a long-term fracturing of the British public’s affiliation with the two-party system. While the electoral system continues to favour two-party politics, the electorate are in large numbers voting for parties other than the main two. Gone are the days when Labour and the Conservatives between them accounted for more than 90% of the vote in UK general elections and 90% of seats in Parliament. At the 2015 general election, the combined share of the vote of the Conservative and Labour parties was 67%. One in five voted for parties other than the main four (Conservative, Labour, SNP and Liberal Democrat) and eleven parties won seats at Westminster. The 2017 general election was seen by some as a return to two-party politics, with Labour and the Conservatives accounting for 83% of the vote, but almost one in ten still voted for parties other than the main four and eight different parties won seats.

Polling organisations are not quite sure how to test support for The Independent Group, they’re not a party and don’t have enough members to stand across the UK. Nevertheless, some early polling does indicate support for The Independent Group ranging from 6% to 14%, on a par or better than smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats and UKIP.

There are also precedents for successful independent members at Westminster. Independent MPs were the norm prior to the emergence of political parties in the nineteenth century. There have, nevertheless, been some prominent examples in recent years, notably the journalist Martin Bell who stood on an anti-sleaze platform against Neil Hamilton in Tatton in 1997 and Dr Richard Taylor who stood against plans to close Kidderminster Hospital in 2001 and retained his seat in 2005. Sylvia Hermon has sat as an independent MP for North Down since she left the Ulster Unionists in 2010. There are currently 21 independent MPs sitting in the House of Commons, although several of these have had the Whip withdrawn for a range of alleged misdeeds within and beyond Parliament and are unlikely to be invited to join The Independent Group. Crucially, aside from Sylvia Hermon none have tested their independent status at the ballot box.

It is also worth bearing in mind that there are 151 independent members sitting in the House of Lords. Crossbench peers comprise the third largest group in the Lords. Although none owe their seat to success at the ballot box, they are nevertheless valued for offering a non-partisan perspective to debate in the upper chamber.

Perhaps more significant than the decidedly mixed fortunes of independent members at Westminster, is the public’s willingness to vote for independent candidates in other elections in the UK. Independent candidates are a common feature of local elections in the UK and attract considerable support. There are around 1800 independent councillors in the UK, around 9% of all local councillors. In Lincolnshire, where I write this, the County Council includes six independent councillors, the same as the number of Labour councillors. Of the twenty-three directly elected mayors in England and Wales, two are currently independent (Copeland and Mansfield), while independents have previously been elected as Mayors in Hartlepool, Middlesbrough and London.

The challenges for The Independent Group to establish themselves as a significant force in British politics are not inconsiderable. The best response to this may not, however, be to form themselves into a political party and seek to challenge the established parties on their own terms. At least some voters may be ready for an independent voice at Westminster and a different way of doing things. The fortunes of independent MPs have been somewhat mixed, but the experience of local government in the UK indicates that the public is willing to vote for independent candidates, even when standing against members of the established political parties. Why not at Westminster?

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How did the Government end up in contempt of Parliament?

This post first appeared on the blog of the Political Studies Association Parliaments Group on 10 December 2018.

The Government has found itself in the unprecedented position of being in contempt of Parliament. The immediate cause of the contempt motion was the government’s failure to release in full the Attorney-General’s legal advice on the EU withdrawal agreement. The Government had been instructed to release the advice in an Opposition motion which was approved by Parliament on 13th November. The Government’s refusal to do so, coupled with its attempt to circumvent Parliament’s instruction by sending the Attorney-General to the House to explain his advice, prompted Labour to table a contempt motion which, on 4th December, was passed by 311 votes to 293.

The roots of the Government’s parliamentary difficulties in relation to the Attorney-General’s advice do not, however, lie in its handling of the EU withdrawal agreement, so much as its response to an Opposition Day motion on Universal Credit tabled in October 2017.

Opposition Motions and the Humble Address

Although most parliamentary business is dominated by the Government, in each parliamentary session several days are set aside for Opposition motions. A Government with a majority can usually be assured of defeating an Opposition motion. Moreover, even if passed Opposition motions are non-binding and the Government is not usually required to do anything in response. Opposition days do, nevertheless, allow opposition parties to set the parliamentary agenda. Ministers must come to the House to respond to a motion and they can be used to put pressure on the Government.

Following its failure to secure a majority at the 2017 general election, the current Government adopted a policy of not contesting Opposition motions, on the perhaps dubious premise, that it could not be said to have been defeated if it did not contest a vote. This approach to opposition days caused considerable consternation on both sides of the House and following an uncontested vote on universal credit in 2017, the Speaker was moved to suggest to Opposition MPs that ‘mechanisms’ were available to secure a Government response and that he would not be opposed to the use of such mechanisms.

The mechanism adopted by Labour at its next Opposition day debate was to table its motion in the form of a Humble Address to Her Majesty requesting the release of certain documents relating to the Government Brexit impact assessments. While Opposition day motions are non-binding, the Humble Address, is a binding resolution of the House. Although it is usually used to communicate the House’s congratulations or commiserations to the Monarch, in a rarely used form, known as a motion for a return, the humble address can also be used to invoke Parliament’s power to call for papers from a Government department.

The Government was caught out by Labour’s use of a motion for a return in relation to its Brexit impact assessments and, reluctantly released the papers to the House. Having successfully forced the government to release Brexit papers, Labour has continued to deploy the motion for a return, with varying degrees of success. Labour has used the Humble Address as a motion for a return eight times in this parliamentary session, including the motion calling for the release of the Attorney-General’s legal advice on the EU withdrawal agreement. Labour has not, however, had it all its own way. In May this year, in response to an expansive opposition motion requesting documents relating to the Windrush scandal, the Government decided that it could no longer afford to allow Labour a free hand and, for the first time in this Parliament, contested and defeated an Opposition motion.

In this context it was little surprise when Labour used its Opposition day on 13th November to present a Humble Address requesting the release, ‘in full’, of any legal advice relating to the withdrawal agreement. Although, as indicated by the Windrush motion, it was by no means certain that the motion would be approved by the House, the Government had already come under pressure to release the Attorney-General’s advice. When it became clear that Labour’s motion would also be supported by MPs from the DUP and Conservative MPs opposed to the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement, the Government chose not to contest the motion which was approved without a vote. The Speaker advised that ‘it is an expression of the will of the House that certain documents should be provided to it. It is then for the Government to respond, and we await that response, which it is to be expected will be swift.’

The Government’s response to Parliament’s demand for the Attorney-General’s legal advice

Last Monday, the Government sought to head off the demands of the House by publishing a lengthy overview of the legal position with regard to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and sending the Attorney-General to the House of Commons to explain his legal advice and why the Government was not releasing it in full. Despite a robust performance from the Attorney-General, there was considerable concern on both sides of the House, both regarding the legal implications of the withdrawal agreement and also the Government’s attempt to circumvent the requirements of the 13th November motion.

Events moved fast on Monday evening. Shortly after the end of the debate on the Attorney-General’s statement, the Speaker revealed that he had received a letter asking that the House be allowed to debate the matter of contempt, “at the earliest opportunity”. The letter, which was signed by the Brexit spokespersons of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, the Green Party and perhaps most remarkably, the Democratic Unionist Party, argued that the information released by the Government that day did not constitute the “final and full” advice provided by the Attorney General to the Cabinet and did not therefore comply with the motion of 13th November.

A little over two hours later, midway through an SNP-led adjournment debate on Scotland’s foreign policy footprint, the Speaker returned to the chamber to announce that having considered the request he was convinced that “there is an arguable case that a contempt has been committed” and that a contempt motion would be debated as first business the following day. The Foreign Office Minister, Alan Duncan was then placed in the unenviable position of stretching out the Government’s response to the SNP’s adjournment motion, long enough to allow the Government to table an amendment to Labour’s motion of contempt before the House rose for the day. To the bemusement and irritation of SNP members, he was assisted by numerous interventions from a group of Conservative MPs who suddenly appeared in the Chamber with a new-found interest in Scottish affairs.

The future of the Humble Address

The Government’s amendment to Labour’s contempt motion, remarkably, sought to refer itself to the Privileges Committee to rule on whether it had responded sufficiently to the demands of the 13th November motion. Interestingly, the Government also sought to question Labour’s use of the Humble Address by asking the Committee ‘to consider the constitutional and historic context and the proper use, ambit and scope of the motion for return procedure.’

In the debate on the contempt motion the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom described Labour’s use of the Humble Address as ‘irresponsible’ warning that ‘the House might request, by way of a Humble Address, information that could compromise national security or which might put the lives of our troops in danger.’ Similar concerns had been raised by the Attorney-General in the previous day’s debate, when he had asked:

Where do the limits of this power end? Does it extend to Cabinet minutes? Does it extend to the papers of the secret intelligence service? Is the House, by means of this motion, to command any paper of any kind, central to the interests of this nation, without even being able to check that, by its release, it is causing, or might cause, severe damage to the public interest?

The Government’s amendment was defeated, and the contempt motion approved. The Attorney-General’s legal advice has now been released in full, in line with the instruction of the House delivered on 13th November. The Privileges Committee will ultimately decide whether any punishment will follow. Interestingly the contempt motion which was approved by the House referred to ‘Ministers’ rather than to any individual, which suggests that any punishment should extend beyond any individual, such as the Attorney-General. The Government has sought to keep pressure on Labour’s use of the Humble Address by writing to Privileges Committee to ask it to consider whether it is appropriate. The Privileges Committee, however, acts on the basis of instruction from the House, rather than individual parties and may not feel minded to respond to the Government’s request.

The Government’s response reflects a change in their approach to Opposition motions. The Government had begun this Parliament by whipping its MPs not to vote on Opposition motions in order to avoid the appearance of defeat. Labour’s repeated use of the motion for a return eventually prompted the government to contest these motions, with some success, earlier this year. However, following its defeat on the legal advice motion and the tabling of a motion of contempt, it has now sought to question whether the motion for a return it is an appropriate procedure for the Opposition to deploy.

During the contempt debate the Government repeatedly suggested that the use of the Humble Address as a motion for a return is an arcane, outdated and potentially dangerous practice. Yet Labour has deployed this tactic on several occasions during this Parliament and on each previous occasion the Government has accepted the outcome, albeit reluctantly. The Government was not tricked into releasing the Attorney-General’s legal advice or outflanked by a clever piece of parliamentary procedure about which it was unaware. Given what has already taken place during this Parliament, Labour’s approach and the likely outcome were entirely predictable.

Moreover, whatever the dramatic scenarios presented by Government Ministers, the motion for a return does not give the Opposition absolute power to secure the release of government documents. Parliament already has the power to call for papers, this is a central feature of parliamentary sovereignty. The motion for a return provides a mechanism to enact that power, but it may only be enacted if a majority of MPs support it, this is also a central feature of parliamentary sovereignty. The Government simply failed to secure a majority to defeat Labour’s motion of 13th November. Parties which can command a majority in the House of Commons, whether Government or Opposition, face very few restraints on their powers.

Opposition motions do not usually cause Governments such difficulty. They have done so in this case, not because parliamentary procedure is weighted against the Government, indeed quite the opposite is true, but rather because the Government cannot command a majority in the House of Commons. If the Government thinks this is damaging to the national interest it should consider its own position rather than seeking to blame parliamentary procedure.

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The seemingly inexorable rise of the special political adviser

This post first appeared on the Democratic Audit blog in December 2018.

Every year since 2010, usually at around this time of year, the Government publishes a list of special advisers and their salaries. The latest data release, which took place yesterday, revealed another rise in the number of these highly-paid political appointees.

Special advisers are temporary civil servants employed by government to provide political advice to Ministers. Their roles vary considerably from providing media advice to policy expertise but, unlike permanent civil servants, special advisers are not required to be politically impartial. As political appointees, special advisers generally leave office when a government changes and new governments bring their own advisers, many of whom will have been employed by the party when in opposition.

The use of political advisers by governments is not a new phenomenon, but the number and role of special advisers has expanded considerably in recent years. The most significant expansion followed the election of the Labour government in 1997. Through 18 years of opposition and particularly in the run-up to the 1997 election, Labour had developed a large cadre of advisers and, in particular, media strategists whose services they wished to retain. Following the 1997 election, many of these individuals found themselves working alongside Ministers and civil servants and in certain circumstances were even given the authority to issue instructions to civil servants.

There has been some movement towards regularising the work of special advisers in recent years. On appointment special advisers become employees of the civil service, rather than the party. As such they are covered by the Civil Service code and in 2001 the Cabinet Office produced a separate code of conduct for special advisers. The code of conduct describes special advisers as ‘a critical part of the team supporting Ministers’ but also suggests that their appointment may help to protect the civil service from accusations of politicisation:

They add a political dimension to the advice and assistance available to Ministers while reinforcing the political impartiality of the permanent Civil Service by distinguishing the source of political advice and support. Special advisers should be fully integrated into the functioning of government. They are part of the team working closely alongside civil servants to deliver Ministers’ priorities. They can help Ministers on matters where the work of government and the work of the government party overlap and where it would be inappropriate for permanent civil servants to become involved. They are appointed to serve the Prime Minister and the Government as a whole, not just their appointing Minister.

Government transparency and special advisers

In opposition the Conservative Party was critical of Labour’s use of special advisers. The Conservative Party manifesto for the 2010 general election promised to reduce the cost of government and to make government more accountable and transparent. This included an unequivocal commitment to ‘put a limit on the number of special advisers and protect the impartiality of the civil service.’ This commitment to reducing special adviser numbers was repeated in the Coalition Programme for Government.

The special adviser data release is an admirable example of openness in government. Previous governments had also provided data on the employment of special advisers, but these had generally come in response to parliamentary questions. The first special adviser data release in June 2010 provided a model which has been followed on an annual basis since. It included the names of all special advisers then in post, their pay band and, in the case of the most well-paid special advisers, their actual salary.

The timing of the data release has not, however, been ideal in terms of encouraging scrutiny. The date of the release has varied but there has been a tendency to issue the data on a day when Parliament is going into recess or, in some cases, when Parliament is not sitting. Every year since 2014, including the current year, the data has been released on or just before Parliament rose for Christmas. Issuing the data just before a recess means that the release is often buried in a flurry of other announcements, it may also reduce the opportunity for uncomfortable parliamentary questions about the Government’s use of special advisers.

The inexorable rise in the number of special advisers

The possibility of uncomfortable parliamentary questions is perhaps enhanced by the seemingly inexorable rise in the numbers of special advisers and also the, not inconsiderable, salaries attached to some of these posts.

The total number of special advisers certainly increased considerably under Labour, almost doubling from 38 in the final year of the Major government to 70 at the end of Labour’s first year in power. The total number of special advisers under Labour peaked at 84 in 2005. Following the election of the coalition government in 2010 there was a slight fall in the number of special advisers, but this soon began to rise. Despite promising to reduce numbers, by 2013 the number of special advisers employed by the coalition government had surpassed Labour’s peak and kept on rising.

Although the numbers fell again following the 2015 general election they have once again begun to rise. This year’s release reveals that 99 individuals are currently employed as special advisers, although 3 of these work part-time. There are currently more special advisers than at any point under Labour and almost as many as during the highest point of the coalition government.

Although the number of special advisers employed by the coalition government can, in part, be explained by the need to provide advisers for both parties in the coalition, this does not account for all of the additional numbers. By the final year of the coalition there were a total of 20 special advisers supporting the Deputy Prime-Minister, Nick Clegg and the other fourteen Liberal Democrat Ministers. However, the total number individuals employed as special advisers had by this point risen to 103, with 83 of those supporting Conservative Ministers.

Other more significant and long-term factors in the rise in special adviser numbers are the increase in size of the Government and also the concentration of advisers in Downing Street. There is no statutory limit on the number of special advisers, but the Ministerial Code allows for the appointment of two special advisers to each Cabinet Minister and one to any other Minister attending Cabinet. The size of the Cabinet has grown under Theresa May, there are currently 23 full Cabinet Ministers and a further 6 Ministers attending. Moreover, some Ministers are clearly exceeding their allocation. There are at present five Secretaries of State with three special advisers while the Home Secretary has four. Interestingly, in the last year, the number of special advisers in the Whips’ Office has doubled from two to four. Moreover, there are no limitations on the number of advisers allocated to the Prime Minister. Since the late 1990s around a third of all special advisers have been located in Number 10, although this has also increased since 2010. Half of this year’s increase in special adviser numbers can be attributed to advisers appointed by Number 10.

Special advisers in context

Perhaps wary of the potential for criticism the Government also now provides some contextual data with the annual special adviser data release. In addition to the list of advisers and salaries it notes that while there are 99 special advisers working in government, there are a total of 430,075 civil servants working across the country. It also notes that the total cost of special advisers at £8.1million per calendar year, is only 0.05% of the total civil service budget. This cost is also compared to the £9.8million of state funding which is provided through Short Money to support opposition parties with seats in the House of Commons, and the £1million of Cranbourne Money which supports opposition parties in the House of Lords.

This is certainly interesting contextual data although it does allow for a number of other conclusions. The number of special advisers is indeed tiny when compared to the massed ranks of civil servants, but the reason why parties in government have not historically relied upon special advisers, is precisely because they have been able to draw on the considerable resources of the civil service. Similarly, in relation to the funding provided to opposition parties, this is designed to allow opposition parties to be able to carry out their parliamentary business, in order to provide effective scrutiny of the government. It is paid to opposition parties and not the government, because opposition parties do not have the resources available to the Government. While the data provided in the current release indicates that funding for opposition parties is slightly more than the total budget for special advisers, opposition parties receive no other state support, while governments are able to draw on the support both of special advisers and the civil service.

Moreover, it is very difficult to avoid the fact that special advisers are very highly paid individuals, operating at the higher levels of the civil service in Whitehall. While there are considerable drawbacks to being a special adviser, not least job-insecurity, they are considerably better paid than most civil servants and in many cases than most Members of Parliament. On the basis of the figures provided in the current release, the average salary for a special adviser is more than twice the average salary for the other 430,075 civil servants, while 22 special advisers currently earn more than the current basic salary for an MP of £77,379.

The growth in numbers, cost and influence of special advisers has been a source of considerable concern for some time. Several inquiries have recommended a cap on special adviser numbers and opposition parties have often been critical of their use. Yet in government no party has felt able to arrest the trend begun by Labour in 1997. At a time when the impartiality of the permanent civil service is frequently being brought into question, some attention might justifiably be focused on the impact of this small, yet ever-expanding, group of highly-paid political appointees.

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The pastoral role of the Party Whips

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.

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In praise of the PM’s Parliamentary Private Secretary


I have become transfixed by Prime Minister’s Questions, but not by the weekly joust between the PM and the Leader of the Opposition. I am fascinated, instead, by what is going on just over the Prime Minister’s right shoulder.

The MP sitting just behind and to the right of the Prime Minister is her Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS), Seema Kennedy. Throughout PMQs she sits with a loose-leaf sheaf of papers on her knee, easily distinguishable by the bright yellow tags attached to each sheet. At times she can be seen rapidly flicking through the papers, re-arranging sheets and PMQoccasionally scribbling notes. What we rarely see, because the restrictions on filming in parliament mean that the cameras focus on whoever is speaking, are the moments when the Prime Minister turns around to speak to her PPS and to take from her one or two of these distinctive yellow-tagged sheets. The clues, however, are clearly visible when the camera pans out and one catches a glimpse of an identical pile of yellow-tagged papers sitting on the despatch box in front of the Prime Minister.

This is Seema Kennedy’s job. As PPS to the Prime Minister she is the custodian of a folder of briefing notes prepared in anticipation of possible questions which might come up at PMQs. It includes policy details, statistics, and possible ripostes relating to any question which might be lobbed in the PM’s direction. She must then sit behind the Prime Minister in the chamber and try to anticipate questions in order to slip the appropriate briefing note into the PM’s hand, preferably before the questioner has finished asking his or her question.

For their recent and excellent book about PMQs, Punch and Judy Politics, Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton, who were both special advisors to Ed Miliband, have spoken to many of the participants in PMQs on both sides of the House. They describe the process of putting together the PM’s briefing folder and reveal some of the secrets and also the pitfalls involved in supporting the PM in the chamber. They note, for example, that one tactic designed to catch out the Prime Minister and guaranteed to increase the heart-rate of their PPS, is for those asking questions not to reveal the subject of the question until the very end. Questions which begin, ‘Can the Prime Minister explain the recent increase in… ‘ have a myriad of possible conclusions – taxes, immigration, waiting lists, unemployment? Such tactics, they argue, can create a split-second advantage for the Leader of the Opposition. They also reveal how William Hague, as Leader of the Opposition, took advantage of the comprehensive briefing notes prepared for Tony Blair. Hague noticed that Blair kept his briefing notes in alphabetical order in two folders. Consequently, Hague would alternate between questions on subjects from opposite ends of the alphabet, for example a question on armed forces followed by a question on welfare, forcing the PM to jump from folder to folder.

Keeping up with such ruses makes for a challenging half hour, and often considerably longer than that, for the Prime Minister’s PPS, and a compelling distraction for those of us watching the careful shuffling of papers just over the PM’s shoulder.

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