A defeat in the Commons for the Government?
The Government today unveils it plans for holding terror suspects. After previous defeats, the latest arbitrary figure they are going for is 42 days without charge. The Tories and Lib Dems are opposing this measure and there is a good chance that many Labour back benchers will too. Ironically, I suspect that the extension of the 28 days limit is probably quite popular with the electorate – most have bought into the line, rightly or wrongly (who knows?), that we live in dangerous times and that certain civil liberties need to be curbed for our own safety. Personally I feel that unless the government can make the case for the extension using hard facts, I just cannot back them on this issue. So far I have not heard the government make this case – their argument is solely based on a very loose “what if?” Either way, the vote could spell trouble for Brown.
A busy time for the Whips
In order for the government to be defeated there needs to be over 34 Labour rebel backbenchers. It is going to be tight and the Whips will have their work cut out. So what can the Whips do to ensure that the government wins the day? Well, this takes us in the dark and murky world of British politics. The unsaid and largely unknown. Hansard doesn’t report what the Whips do in Parliament – the excuse being that it is a party issue. So what do we know and just how far will do Whips go to ensure the government wins the day?
The dark and murky world of being a government Whip
A fascinating and revealing piece on this can be found here, written by Patrick Dixon. He details, using first-hand accounts of the extreme lengths that some Whips will go to. Those not familiar with the Whip system should know that Whips are the key figures in the party that instruct MPs how to vote. They will tell their parliamentary party members that they must vote in today’s debate and then underline the words either once, twice or three times. This indicates what the punishment will be if they don’t vote or vote against the party. One line means that not a lot will happen if they don’t vote. Three lines mean a withdrawal of the whip – which is effectively expulsion from the party, hence the term Three Line Whip. But there are far more sinister tactics used than this...
Extortion, blackmail, heavy verbal abuse and even physical roughness
The bully boy tactics used by Whips have been reported to include extortion, blackmail, heavy verbal abuse and even physical roughness. The threat of losing that promotion to the cabinet or that meeting with the queen is not uncommon. There are even reports that MP’s have been threatened with sleaze stories being released to the press or their partners. Whips have been accused of keeping “little black books” which are a directory of misdemeanours that members have built up over the years that can be used against them. Of course, depending on whose account you listen too, these tactics are either common or not ever used. Given what I have read and heard I suspect it is somewhere between the two. There is little doubt that heavy handed whipping does go on and I am sure Westminster will be party to some on the upcoming Counter Terrorism Bill.
An extraordinary account
I will leave you today with this extraordinary account of just how extreme Whips are willing to go to ensure they win a parliamentary vote:
This Patrick Dixon talking to a Tory MP discussing the 1992 vote on Maastricht where many Tory MPs were planning to vote against the government:
“A lot of wives were then contacted, either by the Whips Office or by somebody from Central Office or by the friend of the MP attacked, depending on how well they knew the family. And the line with the wives was, er, sometimes persuasive, like, you know, "You're not going to get . . . Your husband's not going to get the title. You won't get the title or won't get the trips abroad or won't get this or won't get that," or quite threatening: "We know something about him, in his private life.
Then as the night came and then the day and then the evening and the vote at ten o'clock, as that got nearer the numbers were just not adding up and they [The Whips] were getting more frenetic. Going round they would try a combination of all these things simultaneously.
'The plan fell apart and they would just physically, er, get hold of people, verbally abuse them, or persuade them there's drinks - the Prime Minister probably never poured out so many bloody drinks - and the Prime Minister was available...
And then as the vote was called and the divisions began I saw people physically blocking the entrance to the Lobby to stop some Members getting in. I saw one MP physically carried into the Lobby...”
Should be fun and games in the Commons again then with the Counter Terrorism Bill too then... oh to be a fly on the wall!