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UK Parliament – How Does the Government Organise its Majority – The Whips Overview

The British system is one in which the Executive dominates Parliament and it is accepted that the Government needs to get its legislation through and win the votes.

The party system does mostly ensure this. MPs are party people selected by their local constituency parties and often with a background of involvement in the party.

For many, voting against their party is a very difficult experience. There are, however, three channels through which the Government does organise its backbenchers, the Whips, party groups and Parliamentary Private Secretaries. Here we explore the Whips.


The Prime Minister appoints a Chief Whip, who becomes a Cabinet Minister, a Deputy Chief Whip and a team of ten or so Junior Whips, who receive a ministerial salary but have no responsibility for running Government Departments. The Whips talk to MPs to make sure that they vote with the Government, even up to the last few minutes before the division, and have both sanctions and incentives in their armoury to help ensure this.

How do the Whips get the vote in?

The Whips meet every Monday to look at what business there will be in the coming week and discuss any problems that there might be. When the Coalition was in power there were separate Conservative and Liberal Democrat Whips who met together on Mondays and then talked to their respective MPs. Now the Government Whips are all Conservative.

They will already have issued the Whip to Government MPs which is a sheet which details all the votes that MPs should be present in Parliament for and how important they are.

Most will be three line whips which means that MPs must vote. They will keep track of any MPs who are ill or overseas and will not be present, although when votes were very close, as during 1974-9 when the Labour Government had a tiny majority, even seriously ill MPs, with their permission and that of their families, were brought in on stretchers and as long as they were in the Parliamentary precincts their vote counted.

Joe Ashton, an MP at the time, tells the story that a Labour MP was brought by ambulance into the precincts attached to a machine to monitor his heart rate and the Conservative Whip leaned across and asked if he was still alive. The Government Whip also leaned across and turned the dial on the machine and the light went green and said “Yes he is, we’ve won by one vote”.

If the Government is confident that it has a safe majority MPs may be allowed to pair, which means they can activate an agreement with an Opposition MP not to vote, so that they can attend, say, an important meeting in their constituency. MPs used to have regular pairs but towards the end of the Major Government with its small majority the system broke down with each side accusing the other of double booking and it now works on a more ad hoc basis, though it was used on as an important an issue as the so-called Bedroom Tax in 2013.

The Whips have to manage the vote when it takes place. These are generally in the evening and MPs are called to vote by division bells and have eight minutes to get to the Chamber and go through the Yes or No (Ayes or Noes) lobbies to record their votes.

When some MPs used to drink rather more than they do now, a whip was assigned to each bar to round up any MPs that need escorting to the Chamber.

Most MPs have only a general idea what they are voting about. Discussion in the Chamber can last eight hours or more and it is not possible for MPs to follow all this and be expert on it as well as deal with the mass of constituency correspondence and issues, attend meetings with local groups and keep abreast of the issues that they do want to concentrate on.

The system of whipping and divisions allows them to still support the Government and when they get to the Chamber they can follow other MPs of the same party through the right lobby with the Whips indicating the way. When there were only six Liberal MPs in the 1950s they couldn’t see, in the throng of MPs, where the other Liberals were and ended voting in different directions.

The Opposition has a similar system of whipping but discipline tends to be less tight as the consequences of MPs voting are less critical.

A vital role in communicating the view of backbenchers

Although the discussion above suggests the Whips act only to control MPs they actually play a vital part in communicating the view of backbench MPs to the leadership.

A Whip is allocated to the party’s MPs from each region and is constantly getting their views about Government policies and performance and relaying them back to the party leadership.

In the Major Government, Conservative Whips told the Prime Minister that the backbenchers would not accept the privatisation of the Royal Mail and the idea was dropped.

Potential rebellions can be headed off by agreeing to make concessions and alter the details of legislation. Whips try to understand their MPs and give advice on political and personal problems.

The help can be even more hands on. Jenny Willott, the Liberal Democrat MP, left her baby with the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip while she went to an important meeting. An official from the Conservative Chief Whip’s office found the Liberal Chief Whip changing the baby’s nappy and gave a look as if to say, “I knew having the Liberal Democrats in Government would be like this.”