· 6 min read · Features

The black book and other dark secrets of HR at Westminster


The whips office at the House of Commons is, in theory, Westminsters equivalent of HR. But, as Peter Oborne reveals, it has a lot more in common with the Freemasons

There are some close similarities between business and the public sector and many sharp differences. One of the most interesting ways to compare the two worlds is by an investigation of the whips office at the House of Commons Westminsters equivalent of the human resources department.

Like the HR team of a large company, the whips are responsible for the selection, promotion, discipline and career guidance of key personnel though they have at best an indirect role in recruitment. Their job is to spot talent, foster it and identify the duds. They must ensure that morale is high and that their parliamentary troops operate in as co-ordinated a way as possible.

They work partly in the dark. They know many secrets. They know who are the drinkers, the philanderers and the bankrupts. The whips office operates as a kind of freemasonry, formed by shared experience and shared secrets. It used to be said under the Tories that you never really left the whips office, just as it is said that you never really leave MI6.

There are two ways that the whips office can exert discipline: the stick and the carrot. With young, ambitious MPs the carrot does not present much of a problem. They want to advance and crave promotion. The way they achieve this is by keeping their noses clean. Several times a year, often on a Sunday afternoon, the whips office will meet to assess the performance of every single one of the partys MPs and ministers in the case of Labour. Talented back-benchers are marked out for promotion, while failing front-benchers are lined up for the sack.

When MPs fall out of line, they are given explicit warnings that they are jeopardising their career. Alternatively, rebellious youngsters are often bought off with the offer of a job. In the mid-1990s Iain Duncan Smith, now the Tory leader, was one of the leaders of the back-bench rebellion against the Maastricht Treaty which came close to toppling the government. He was approached by Derek Conway, a senior member of the whips office, and offered the post of parliamentary aide to Jonathan Aitken, then a rising member of the Cabinet. Duncan Smith turned the offer down.

Hilary Benn threatened trouble in the first years of the Blair administration. Now he has been craftily silenced by being made deputy to Clare Short at the Department for International Development.

For those who have fallen off, or never got onto, the ladder, discipline is more tricky though far from hopeless. The whips office has access to immense reserves of patronage.

Foreign trips, for instance, are a notable form of bribery. Most invitations overseas come through our door and we sift them thoroughly, says one Labour whip. MPs love going abroad and being made much of. We use the promise of these trips to reward loyalty.

Another key source of power is control over allocation of office space. Every whips office has an accommodation whip, part of whose job it is to ensure that difficult MPs get punished with remote, chilly and poorly ventilated offices.

Of still greater importance are committee chairmanships. The portentous posts are greatly prized by back-bench MPs who have given up hope of ascending the political ladder.

Last summer the Blair Government ran into extreme difficulties when it arranged for two spiky committee chairmen, who had not hesitated to cause trouble, to stand down. But the plan went astray after a back-bench revolt and in the end the two intended victims Gwyneth Dunwoody and Donald Anderson were triumphantly re-elected.

In the early 90s the Tory whips were driven to despair by the independent attitude of health committee chairman Nicholas Winterton and plotted his downfall. They changed the rules so that he was obliged to stand down.

Unfortunately the same rule change meant that a loyal chairman Sir John Wheeler at the home affairs committee was also forced to stand down. This was a consequence that nobody had foreseen or wanted. In due course Wheeler was found a ministerial post instead.

The greatest difficulty faced by the whips wishing to enforce discipline and loyalty comes with those whose ministerial ambition is over. In these cases the prospect of a knighthood can work wonders. It can keep them quiet for years, drawls one Conservative whip.

Peerages are better still. They really work wonders, because they are in such short supply, says one Tory whip. The trouble is that they are only an effective weapon in government. Blair has been extremely swift to pick up this point. Part of the reason why his own back benches have rebelled less than expected is the prodigious number of peerages made available to sullen old-timers. He has, however, hobbled himself by stopping political knighthoods.

A key role of the whips office is to operate a spy system to detect changes in sentiment and brewing rebellions in the ranks. When the whips office convenes on Monday mornings it is the practice of the chief whip to ask MPs how they have spent the weekend. All present are then expected to divulge intelligence they have gathered from conversations with other MPs and ministers, and whether any plotting had taken place. Sometimes they do not come clean, especially if they are involved in plotting themselves.

In 1993 Michael Brown, a junior member of the whips office, was asked this question one Monday morning by Richard Ryder. Just seeing a few friends. Nothing much, replied Brown. In fact he had spent the weekend secretly at cabinet minister Peter Lilleys Normandy farmhouse. Also present had been Michael Portillo, Iain Duncan Smith and a coterie of other right-wingers, information that would have been priceless to the whips office had Brown chosen to divulge it.

David Davis, now Tory Party chairman, was a senior member in John Majors whips office in the early 1990s. Unusually, he brought to the job previous private-sector experience, having been a director of Tate & Lyle before entering Parliament. Theres a big welfare function in the whips office, says Davis, when you are in government and there are 370 people wanting 70 jobs. They are very ambitious people, and if you dont manage them, they will be very unhappy.

It is essential for the whips to have the closest possible knowledge of MPs private lives so that they can head off scandal or avert personal catastrophe. They are in an ideal situation to gather this information. On many occasions, recalls one of Blairs whips, we have been forced to call in our people from home for an urgent vote at 3.00am or 4.00am. It would not be unusual to ring one of the wives at home and for her to say: But I thought that he was with you. He was off with a mistress or just as likely in some gay bar. For many years, under the Tories, this sort of knowledge was stored in a black book held in a locked safe in the chief whips office.

There is no doubt that on occasion this information could be abused to blackmail MPs into conformity. More often, it is put to pastoral use. One whip, who served under the huge Margaret Thatcher majorities in the late 80s, used to try and urge MPs whose marriages he knew to be on the rocks not to come in and vote the idea being that too many late nights away from home could aggravate the situation. I would tell them to stay at home and they would take great offence at being thought they were not wanted. Quite frankly at that time there was no earthly reason why we needed them.

On other occasions the whips rally round men or women whose finances have gone terribly wrong. This was particularly true of the Tories. Bankrupts are not allowed to sit as MPs, and between 1992-97 there was concern that one MP in particular could go under and reduce Majors battered majority still further. In due course the chairman of the high street bank in question was rung up by the chief whip and asked to extend the loan. The bank complied. On several occasions whip rounds were arranged to keep MPs solvent. Tim Sainsbury, a government minister from the famous supermarket family, is said to have been ready to stick his hands in his pocket.

Some of the mystique and power of the whips office has gone since the 1997 election. This is partly because the huge Labour majority has lessened the need for maintaining discipline, and partly because Blair dislikes parliament. He has taken away much of the patronage that belonged to the whips, and with that has gone much of the respect.

A sign of that came in October when a very junior Labour back-bencher, Paul Marsden, was given a full-scale dressing-down by Labours chief whip, Hilary Armstrong. Instead of tugging his forelock, he went out and gave a version of the conversation to the Sunday papers.

Davis is scathing about Armstrongs behaviour. Real whips dont behave like that. The simple truth is most MPs are by their nature quite hard to bully. They are more likely to tell you how to do something than not to do it.

The New Labour emphasis on media competence is so great that Alastair Campbell, director of communications, plays a larger role fostering fresh talent than the chief whip. A symbol of this change came last autumn, when Armstrong was evicted from 12 Downing Street, the imposing red-brick building two doors down from No 10 which has been occupied by her predecessors for more than century. Campbell was installed in her stead.

But Blair may pay a heavy price for undervaluing the whips and failing to pay attention to party discipline as his second term draws on.