Dark rumours have been circulating around Westminster this week about the government whipping operation, with talk of misdemeanour lists to keep troublesome MPs in line, and alleged attempts to put pressure on those threatening to rebel on Brexit.
The Conservative party was forced to deny the suggestion that one politician had been reduced to tears by “bullyboy tactics” before being gently steered through the desired voting lobby by a cabinet minister.
The alleged incident – in the hours before Theresa May’s first parliamentary defeat over Brexit on Wednesday night – came alongside claims of threats to sue potential rebels if they made defamatory comments about the whips.
An observer said Julian Smith, the relatively new chief whip, oversaw a military style “command and control” operation in which officer whips were expected to keep their “flock of MPs” under control.
Whatever the techniques deployed, their efforts were in vain after enough Conservative MPs stood firm on the question of a “meaningful vote” on the final Brexit deal to defeat the prime minister.
The loss was so humiliating, according to some sources, that it left Smith slumped against a wall in the voting lobbies, with tear-stained eyes. One witness claimed he accosted the lead rebel, Dominic Grieve, with the warning: “I will never help you again.”
But despite the claims and counter-claims, at least one Brexiter MP, who was a key Maastricht rebel, thinks this intake of Conservatives are being given a much easier ride than in days gone by. Another MP who has been in parliament for many years said the whips treated MPs with “kid gloves” in 2017 compared with under John Major’s premiership.
Back in the 1990s, the imposing physique and reputation for robust methods led to one Conservative whip being branded “the Terminator”.
David Lightbown was simply a party devotee, who expected the same level of loyalty from his colleagues (and would happily escort them to the smoking room for a drink after a stern word), according to one friend.
But others described him pinning at least one potential rebel against the wall, warning him of the consequences of a vote in the wrong direction.
They said that Major relied on whipping lieutenants to persuade colleagues with a bit of strong-arming and even the occasional sweet word in a loved one’s ear.
In one incident, Anne Jenkin (now a peer), whose husband, Bernard, was a serial rebel over Europe, was approached by a “friendly whip”. She was said to have responded by bursting into tears and claiming: “I can take the nasty approaches – it is the nice ones I can’t handle.”
Now, 25 years on, some claim that Smith has returned to the techniques of the old days. One MP said his team had “swallowed too many DVDs of Game of Thrones and House of Cards – and think that is how you behave”. “It is a mistake,” the MP added.
Another Tory talked of previous chief whips, such as George Young and Patrick McLoughlin, using “gentle and kind” techniques to persuade colleagues. “Now you’ve got a bunch of boys in charge,” they said.
But others insisted that strong-arming techniques were long gone – and wouldn’t work anyway.
The former chief whip Andrew Mitchell admitted that Smith faced a challenge because of the parliamentary mathematics of 2017. “Whipping in a hung parliament is extremely difficult, as we discovered over the Maastricht parliamentary proceedings back in the 1990s, where effectively the government had no majority. So I have very great sympathy with the difficulties that my successors are negotiating,” he said, but added that bullying wouldn’t work.
“There is a myth about whipping that it is all about bullying people but it isn’t, because MPs are pretty robust characters and, frankly, if a whip tries to bully one of their flock they’re quite likely to be sent away with a two-word message, the second of which is off.”
Another former chief Tory whip, Mark Harper, agreed that the stories of techniques of the past – including “people being pinned against walls” – were no longer in use.
“That strong-arming would not work nowadays. If you don’t treat people with a bit of respect you’ll be reading about it on social media.”
He described how the job requires regular meetings with the prime minister, understanding MPs’ concerns, and negotiating with ministers about the government’s response. Whips had to foresee problems, but needed ministers to help solve them, he said.
“The job is an art not a science. You have to persuade people. Sometimes you try to do that on the merit of the case, or sometimes you are saying you will do something in the future – so essentially you are asking them to trust you. Often they don’t need you to do everything they have asked, but they want to feel that you’ve listened to them. A lot of it is to do with relationships.”
One whip involved this week insisted that he and colleagues had only used gentle persuasion.
“I just reminded potential rebels that the prime minister had a boost in Brussels and in the polls, and it would not be very loyal to harm that ahead of Christmas,” he said.
But one of the key rebels, Anna Soubry, who has since received death threats on Twitter, claimed the whips had mishandled the vote, resulting in loyalists voting against May.
“People like Sir Oliver Heald are the most loyal and sensible of Conservatives, longserving through good and bad – they’ve never rebelled – but I’m afraid bad handling turned people like Sir Oliver Heald and Jonathan Djanogly into rebels.”
She said Smith had promised to deal with MPs’ concerns, and they had been expecting a compromise amendment to be published last Friday.
“We waited. No amendment was forthcoming. That was when we knew there was every chance the government would not resolve this as they could have done,” she said, describing a meeting with Smith on Monday that was “perfectly calm” but where the politicians were told to withdraw their amendment.
“Dominic made clear that he was not going to withdraw it and that was the last time he dealt with any ministers,” she added, saying there a number of further occasions for potential compromise.
A last minute semi-concession from ministers was too late, she added. “You cannot treat parliament in such a cavalier way over an issue of sovereignty on such an important decision.”
Others also despaired at the outcome. “The first rule of whipping is to be able to count,” said one MP, who voted with the government. They claimed the whips had picked the wrong group to fall out with. “The problem is that these rebels are very distinguished colleagues – led by Dominic Grieve, probably the best attorney general since the 1960s. People like Nicky Morgan, Bob Neill and Oliver Heald. These are very able, very respected colleagues who are not going to bend the knee to a young whip.”
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