October 19th, 2019
There’s nothing like the prospect of a tight vote to start the adrenalin flowing in the stomach of a Whip. And the vote on Boris’s Brexit deal today could be the tightest of them all.
The Government’s Chief Whip, Mark Spencer, will be working with his deputy, Amanda Milling, and 16 other whips to identify which MPs need “special attention”.
MPs are divided into groups known as “flocks”, with each flock having a personal whip – a shepherd if you like – to tend and care for them. This close and loving relationship can become fraught, however, when a crucial vote approaches. Then it becomes more like shearing time, or when the rumble of the abattoir’s truck approaches.
Each whip will have phoned or texted each member of the flock on Thursday or yesterday to determine whether they will be present to vote and whether they will be supporting the Government. A “no” to either question will set alarm bells clanging. A “no” to both and klaxons will put the Whips Office on full alert.
While this has been going on, all leave, or “slips” as they are known, will have been cancelled. Whether it be a term time weekend break in Marbella with the family or a fact-finding visit to Thailand, MPs will be making their way back home. If they tell their personal whip they cannot return, they can expect a call from Mark Spencer.
Now, Mark has a number of qualities which make him a perfect Chief Whip. Previously number three in the office, he has the necessary experience. He is shrewd, but also has another key quality required of a Chief Whip: an air of menace. This partly follows from his size and bearing. Mark looks like a hefty farmer (which indeed he is, when he’s not being an MP), with beefy forearms well used to applying castration forceps.
Mark Spencer, the Government Chief Whip
But, in practice, the tools of persuasion available to the whips are more limited.
These include appeals to a sense of loyalty to the Party and to colleagues. Persuasion, where a cabinet minister will explain patiently how the MP has got the wrong end of the stick and why it is better to vote with the Government. Inducements, with promises of promotion, knighthoods, or chairmanships of the few committees over which the whips still hold sway and which are accompanied by an additional salary. And finally there is plain bullying, although this tactic rarely achieves the desired result.
Most of my colleagues will understand the crucial importance of today’s vote not only for the nation, but for the credibility and future of the Conservative Party. A sense of survival will also motivate doubting MPs to troop through the right lobby in support of the Government.
I hope there will be enough of them.
Michael Fabricant was a government and opposition whip for seven years