Thursday, March 23, 2023

Behind the scenes of Westminster – how government whips lose their influence

The recent vote of confidence against Boris Johnson dealt a blow to the prime minister’s leadership, revealing the level of opposition he faces in his own party. For those of us who do research on parliament, situations like these are an interesting look at what goes on behind the scenes in party politics.

MPs need to pay attention to what they are told by voters, local parties, advisers and public opinion polls – but above all the whips. Parliamentary whips are MPs appointed by each party leader to encourage loyalty to their common cause. Government whips try to make sure that the government approves its affairs – mostly laws – and that the prime minister gets loyalty.

In the event of a vote of confidence in the leader (a Tory tradition), the whips use a mixture of incentives (such as promotion) and threats to deter MPs from submitting letters to the backbench chair asking for a vote. . If that fails, they try to persuade them not to vote against the Prime Minister.

The opposition whips are involved in similar strategies, but to investigate and undermine the government and its objectives. Under the leadership of the chief whip, the whips act to create solidarity and obedience among the larger team of the political party.

In the past, they communicated by sending instructions on paper, then by caller, and now messages are sent by email or on WhatsApp. It does not differ that much from the communications team in any organization. But in parliament, the heat is being revived by exposure to the media and public.

Relocation of loyalties

Over the past 50 years, government whips have increasingly struggled to keep their members on the sidelines, as political scientist Phil Cowley has found. On the one hand, the government has about 160 to 170 MPs on the payroll (as ministers, whips, parliamentary private secretaries, party vice-chairmen and trade envoys) who have to vote with the whip to keep their jobs. On the other hand, since the 1950s, every parliamentary session has become more rebellious.

Whipping has changed dramatically, as I explain in my anthropology of MPs at work. Whips used to intimidate new backbenchers with threats and sometimes violence – vote as you are told or you will not be promoted to minister, get a seat on a select committee or be allowed a “slip” (absence of a mood). Persistent offenders may be threatened with the withdrawal of the party whip (indicating their party membership), support at the next election or the release of harmful information about them to the media.

Read more: Conservatives in crisis: where whipping stops and extortion begins

But the power of political parties, and both whips and leaders within them, has weakened in recent years, making backing support much less reliable. Parliament absorbed a general cultural decline in respect, which diminished the automatic respect for party leaders.

Leaders are more distant from their backbenchers because they no longer network and gossip with them in the tea rooms, bars and corridors. Relying on a great show when talking to the whole party to get support – for example at the Tory 1922 committee meetings – has become more risky without that everyday relationship building.

Meanwhile, MPs spend much more time in their constituencies as seats are considered less secure in elections, and to respond to demands for help from their constituents. They are therefore increasingly influenced by voters and local party members.

As loyalty to leaders becomes more fragile, MPs find their leaders disappointing with increasing speed. Politicians who make poor judgments, or commit wrongdoing, are much more easily exposed. Leaders or whips who use intimidation may find that their words are repeated on Twitter within minutes, accompanied by outraged comments from those who threatened them.

Boris Johnson Walks Out Of Downing Street With One Hand Up To Greet And Looks Away From The Camera
The power of the government whip is not what it used to be – bad news for Boris Johnson?
Vickie Flores / EPA-EFE

The whip crack

The punishment for MPs who revolt varies in severity depending on the culture of the party, the approach of the leader and the size of the government’s majority. During the Blair / Brown governments of 1997-2010, their vast majority made reprimands unnecessary.

Jeremy Corbyn, the second most rebellious MP during this period, explained in an interview to me that his whip has become quite relaxed. He described how a typical phone call with his then whip Sadiq Khan (now London mayor) would go:

Sadiq: Hello there Jeremy, just wanted to see how you plan to vote on Tuesday.
Jeremy: I’m going against voting.
Sadiq: OK.
Jeremy: I mean against the government.
Sadiq: Yes, I know.
Jeremy: Sadiq, at this point you’re supposed to persuade me to support the party.
Sadiq: I can not be bothered. Would you consider remembering?
Jeremy: No, sorry I can not do that.
Sadiq: OK.

Lose confidence

Whipping gradually involved more intelligence gathering and persuasion than discipline – especially during the time I was researching MPs (2010-2015). However, this pattern suddenly changed again with the aftermath of the Brexit referendum.

As prime minister, Johnson showed his desperation towards 21 anti-Brexit Tory rebels by removing the whip in September 2019. Many lost their seats in the general election a few months later.

In general, people support each other in politics when they like, trust and trust each other; they follow leaders when they feel recognized and represented by them. Consensus on ideology and values ​​is therefore not the only driver of loyalty. If social ties become fragile, parties can no longer rely on loyal voting either outside or inside parliament, and may even find that their supposed supporters turn against them.

The more the conservative whips use intimidation tactics to keep Johnson in power, the more lasting loyalty is likely to disappear. He has burned so many obligations and bridges, it seems more than likely that the whips will not be able to save them after 2022.

Nation World News Desk
Nation World News Desk
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