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UK Parliament – How does the Government Organise its Majority – Carrots and Sticks

The Whips have both sticks and carrots to persuade MPs who are reluctant to support the Government on issues.

The Sticks

Whips will talk to MPs and apply arguments and moral pressure.

On critical votes, such as the ones that the Labour Government nearly lost on Foundation Hospitals and Academy Schools, Cabinet Ministers and the Prime Ministers will be called in to talk to MPs in small groups or individually. MPs who have still voted against the Government line will be called to the Whips Office to explain. The Labour MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham was so upset at being harangued that he defected to the Liberal Democrats.

Whips in the past have been even more brutal.  A senior Labour MP still in the Commons recalls that, after his first couple of weeks in Parliament, he was met in the Commons corridor by a whip who hit him below the belt and said, “You haven’t done anything to annoy me yet, Sonny, but I’ve got my eye on you”.

In the 1980s the Conservative Whips Office were rumoured to have a black book with details of the misdemeanours of Conservative MPs which they could threaten to reveal unless the MP toed the line.

The appointment of three female Chief Whips during the New Labour years softened the approach and having to manage two parties has weakened the Whips during the Coalition Government but Governments still hardly ever lose a vote.

Withdrawing the Whip

If MPs constantly rebel or vote against the party line on a major vote then they can have the Whip withdrawn and, if it is not returned before the general election, they will no longer be the party candidate.

In practice, this rarely happens and can only practically be used against individual or small groups of MPs.  Even then it can cause problems for the Government. When seven Conservative MPs refused to vote for the Maastricht Treaty during the Major Government the whip was withdrawn, even though it meant the Government lost its majority.  They then began to meet as a group to decide how they would vote and the Government had even more problems managing the Commons. The whip was soon returned.

The Carrots

The Whips decide which rooms MPs get as their offices, what equipment they get, whether MPs can go on official trips to other countries, whether they are allocated to Committees and so on.

When Ken Livingstone arrived as an MP in 1987, the Labour Whips saw him as a left-wing rebel and allocated a desk in the corridor instead of an office.

An MP who had voted against the Government was told by the Whip, “I quite understand your reasons for voting the way you did, Oh and by the way, that new PC you ordered, I’m afraid there has been a delay”.

The Whips are in the Commons all the time, checking that their MPs speak at the right time, making sure there is a quorum, managing Public Bill Committees and so on and so they have a knowledge of how MPs are performing.  This allows them to recommend MPs for ministerial office. The power of the Whips to put people on Select Committees has been reduced as MPs now vote on the Chairs of Select Committees.