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Monday, 22 October, 2001, 12:51 GMT 13:51 UK
The world's oldest political profession
Prime Minister Tony Blair in the Commons
Blair wants his backbenchers kept in line
Nick Assinder

After much prompting, Tony Blair has let it be known he believes Hilary Armstrong is a "first class" chief whip.

It was hardly a ringing endorsement for her antics in attempting to discipline war rebel Paul Marsden, and he certainly does not want to be seen to be openly approving of her methods.

Labour chief whip Hilary Armstrong
Armstrong accused of going too far
According to the backbencher's verbatim note of his conversation with her, she accused him of acting in the same way as those who appeased Hitler, and told him the war was not a matter of conscience.

And the clear implication of everything she allegedly said was that, unless he toed the line in future, he would be in big trouble.

Threats, intimidation and even blackmail are not unknown tactics for whips to use - and probably the first class ones are the best at it.

But no party leader likes the grimy secrets of the world's oldest political profession to be flushed into the open.

Yelling obscenities

And, once they are, they will always refuse to discuss them or even appear to distance themselves from them.

There is nothing new in any of this, of course, it is only given extra spice by the fact that the prime minister keeps banging on about openness, free speech and democracy.


There have been regular occasions when MPs on both sides of the House have complained about the heavy handed tactics of the whips - even famously claiming that one Tory whip regularly reduced men to tears

Recently two women backbenchers complained that one former Labour whip had squared up to them on the Commons terrace and started yelling obscenities at them.

And there have been regular occasions when MPs on both sides of the House have complained about the heavy handed tactics of the whips - even famously claiming that one Tory whip regularly reduced men to tears.

Apart from wondering exactly what these people think whips are all about, there is little evidence to suggest things have got worse over the years - probably just better organised.

Files held

According to Mr Marsden, during his tongue lashing, Ms Armstrong waved a thick brown file under his nose and complained about his voting record.

The fact that the whips office holds files on MPs should also come as no surprise.

It is not that long ago that the former Tory deputy leader and chief whip Willie Whitelaw made public the existence of the "dirt book" always kept by the office.

Labour MP Paul Marsden
Marsden was given an ear bashing
He said: "The dirt book was just a little book in which you had to write down varying things that you knew or heard about people."

Others have claimed the book was full of details of MPs private lives - particularly the bits they did not want the voters to find out about.

And these snippets of fact and gossip were used to ensure would-be rebels were kept in line.

Labour may not have such a little book, but you can bet your life they have got a little computer programme.

Kicking in doors

Perhaps the most effective whips in recent times were Michael Cocks and Walter Harrison who ran the office at the fag end of the last Labour government when it could have been defeated on any vote.

Their antics were legendary - kicking down toilet doors and the like to drag recalcitrant MPs into the lobbies - and even saw seriously ill MPs ferried in by ambulance to enter the government lobby.

Suggestions that one was actually dead at the time have always been dismissed.


When a government has such a massive majority as Labour and when the subject at issue is war, many believe Ms Armstrong overstepped the mark

They certainly ruled their backbenchers with a rod of iron and make most of their successors look decidedly cuddly by comparison.

But they were doing a vital job - ensuring the government survived.

That cannot be said of Ms Armstrong. She still has to minimise dissent on the backbenches but, at certain times, even whips have to back off.

And when a government has such a massive majority as Labour and when the subject at issue is war, many believe Ms Armstrong overstepped the mark.

See also:

22 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Row MP can speak out - Number 10
22 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Young pretender to awkward squad
09 Aug 01 | T-Z
Whips
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