‘Partygate’ and the dark art of political whipping

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‘Partygate’ and the dark art of political whipping
© David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images Conservative Chief Whip Mark Spencer David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Rebel Tory MPs accuse Boris Johnson’s chief whip of blackmail in ‘partygate’ row

Rebel Tory MPs have claimed they are victims of an intimidation campaign by party whips amid rumours of a planned no-confidence vote against Boris Johnson.

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    The so-called “pork pie plotters” have accused the government of “blackmail and intimidation” after an attempted ousting of the prime minister failed following the shock defection of Tory MP Chrisitan Wakeford to Labour, The Times reported.

    The backbenchers claim that party whips have “threatened to withdraw funding from their constituencies” and that government aides “smeared them by releasing unsubstantiated claims about their drinking habits and personal lives in the press”.

    Dirty tactics

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    The Guardian said it had been told of “at least five MPs” who say government funding for their constituency has been threatened amid claims that Conservative whips have encouraged “damaging stories to be published in newspapers”. No. 10 denies the claims.

    MPs said it is part of a pattern of underhand tactics used by party whips, not only during the “partygate” scandal but “ahead of the votes on Uighur genocide, cutting international aid, free school meals and the rise in national insurance”, the paper added.

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    The Tory rebels are considering publishing “a secretly recorded conversation with the chief whip”, as well as text messages from other whips as evidence, reported The Times. 

    “They were comparing notes and discussing whether or not to make public texts and other evidence they have from the whips,” a source close to the group told the paper. “One member has recorded a heated conversation that they had with the chief whip.”

    William Wragg, the chair of the public administration committee and one of seven Tory MPs who has admitted to submitting a letter of no confidence in Johnson, has urged MPs to contact the Metropolitan Police if they had been “threatened or intimidated”, said ITV. 

    Wragg, the MP for Hazel Grove in Stockport, said that “intimidation of a member of parliament is a serious matter”, adding: ”The reports of which I’m aware would seem to constitute blackmail.”

    Masters of the dark arts

    As the UK Parliament website explains, whips “are MPs or members of the House of Lords appointed by each party in parliament to help organise their party’s contribution to parliamentary business. One of their responsibilities is making sure the maximum number of their party members vote, and vote the way their party wants.”

    In other words, “whips are politicians appointed by each party to ensure MPs toe the line and back their leader,” said the i news site. Whips also act as tellers, counting the intended votes among their party’s MPs ahead of a parliamentary division.

    They also manage the pairing system, whereby MPs of opposing parties both agree not to vote when other business – such as a select committee visit – prevents them from being present in Westminster.

    Outdated role?

    “Party whips in the House of Commons have always revelled in their notoriety and enjoyed being glamorised on stage and screen,” said Sky News chief political correspondent Jon Craig.

    Perhaps the most notorious on-screen portrayal of a chief whip is the “villainous” Frances Urquhart in hit 90s show House of Cards, whose catchphrase – “You might think that. I couldn’t possibly comment” – is now infamous.

    “But is the real thing very different? Not really,” Craig added. 

    Andrew Mitchell, a former chief whip in John Major’s government, wrote in his recent memoir Beyond a Fringe that “a whip is not moral or immoral but amoral”. 

    “If the government decides to proceed with the slaughter of the first-borns bill, it is the whips’ job to secure the necessary votes by explaining that there are too many first-borns around,” he said. 

    More contemporary whips still enjoy something of a notorious reputation. Gavin Williamson, chief whip under Theresa May, used to enjoy showing off a tarantula called Cronus – named after the Greek god who ate his children –  that he kept on his desk. 

    But while the whips’ office has “long been regarded as the most Machiavellian department in Parliament”, said The Telegraph’s associate editor Camilla Tominey, the latest accusations will put Boris Johnson’s chief whip, Mark Spencer, “under pressure to justify the tactics employed by his secretive cabal of enforcers”.

    It is “embarrassing” enough for Johnson that William Wragg is calling for MPs to report intimidation to the police, she added. But “of far more concern” for the PM “should be the fact that the whips’ office didn’t appear to have an inkling” of Wakeford’s plans to defect.

    Westminster veterans may “credibly accuse newer MPs of naivety if they don’t expect to be occasionally strong-armed into supporting the Government”, Tominey said. 

    But the treatment of rebel MPs “does lay bare the dysfunctionality at the heart of an operation whose very function is to ensure support for the prime minister”.

    ‘Another expenses scandal’

    The government should be “wary” of public opinion on the treatment of its errant MPs, warned The Spectator’s political editor James Forsyth.

    While the “Westminster reaction” may be that the whip’s job is to exist within “the sewers” of British politics, allegations of blackmail could be an “expenses-style scandal” in the eyes of the public. 

    It is “extraordinary” that Tory rebels are considering the “nuclear option” of releasing secret recordings of Mark Spencer and other whips, said Patrick Maguire in The Times. “For such destructive tactics to be discussed so openly is a measure of how far gone some of the rebels are.

    “And that, regardless of the substance of the allegations, is perhaps the most damaging criticism you could level at Spencer – whose office is blamed for having lost control of the backbenches,” he added.

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