Look past the rumours of pet tarantulas and tales of whips dragging MPs out of ambulances to vote – Beatrice Barr and Tim Durrant argue that the whips’ reputation for the dark arts blurs the reality
Secrecy surrounds the activities of the government whips’ office, with tales of dark arts appearing via rumour or – most famously in the case of Francis Urquhart – through fiction. But what is the truth about how this key part of government machinery operates? The IfG has spoken to former whips about what the job actually involves. Far from maintaining a ‘little black book’ of compromising material, day-to-day whipping typically revolves around legislative planning, parliamentary discipline and, increasingly, MPs’ welfare. As former Conservative deputy chief whip Anne Milton told us:
“Holding people up against a wall … grabbing people by the balls and all the rest of it. That had gone a long time ago. And I think the Whips’ Office, in a rather jocular manner, has always tried to keep that alive. I didn’t try to keep that alive… It has no place in the modern workplace.”
Whips are preoccupied with the detail of parliamentary business
Much of the day-to-day work of the 15-or-so Commons whips focuses on the complex task of getting the government’s agenda through the House. This means they need to understand both the complexities of parliamentary procedure and the concerns of their backbenchers. Effective whips should know the backbenchers well, be aware to what is coming down the track and report back to the PM on potential challenges ahead
Hilary Armstrong, who served as Tony Blair’s chief whip from 2001–06, said whips must face in many directions:
“there was the balance between the backbenchers, knowing and understanding what they’re up to; and the government, what the government wants to get through, where government ministers are, where they are with their legislation, and what the prime minister is looking to do.”
This kind of oversight requires strong relationships with MPs, and that is more likely to be achieved by developing trust than bullying or threats. As Anne Milton recalled telling a junior whip who had overstepped the mark, “you have got in bad favour with this particular MP, so they’re not going to be inclined to do what you want next time.”
Interviews with former ministers on the realities of the role and how to be effective in government.Explore the archive
The Whips’ Office is “the only team in government”
Being a government whip is a ministerial experience unlike any other. Former Scotland secretary Jim Murphy told our Ministers Reflect archive that “being in the Whips Office was one of only two occasions where I unquestionably felt like I was part of a much larger team” (the other being the parliamentary football team), while Hilary Armstrong – Murphy’s chief whip – told us “the best thing about it was that I was running a team. Because in politics you don’t get the chance to do that.”
Successful whipping requires honesty and confidence in colleagues. Hilary Armstrong recalled telling her team of whips that she would treat them with absolute trust until something was leaked – at which point she would stop sharing confidential information.
This even includes sharing confidences with the opposition. Former Conservative chief whip Patrick McLoughlin met with his Labour counterpart every Monday for seven years, to organise business in the house and ‘pairing’ of absent MPs. Whips take this relationship seriously – a controversial incident of pairing being broken several years ago is still spoken about today. These relationships require pragmatism and mutual respect, and would be jeopardised if whips saw one another as threats.
The Whips’ Office has an important role in developing MPs’ careers
Whips’ oversight of government MPs extends to supporting prime ministers in reshuffles. All the former senior whips we spoke to remembered contributing to decisions about the most junior ministerial ranks. Patrick McLoughlin told us:
“A chief whip would be involved in the reshuffle discussions – it wouldn’t always go his way. I used to take the view that the prime minister would decide who was in the cabinet, it was no good trying to say yay or nay to that, […]but parli[amentary] under-secretaries, he would listen to the chief whip and others.”
And while chief whips aren’t always able to hand-pick their junior whips, they recognise that a spell in the Whips’ Office can be an important part of ministerial career development. One recent Conservative chief whip instituted annual performance reviews with their junior whips; others told us about treating the Whips’ Office as a “training ground.” Far from cultivating a cabal of trustworthy bullies as career whips, modern chief whips invest time and effort in developing their whips’ careers in other parts of government.
Welfare and pastoral care have become increasingly important
In recent years, the whips have also taken on more of the responsibilities of a corporate HR department – employee welfare included.
One senior whip we spoke to, Anne Milton, is often credited with this transformation during her stint as deputy chief whip from 2015 to 2017. She attributed her approach to her background working in the NHS:
“My view in my job as a minister, as an MP, in everything I did, was always that if you want to get the best out of people, then you do it by bringing out the best in them […] having trained as a nurse, as I say having worked in the health service for 25 years, my skill, I suppose, was conflict resolution.”
Hilary Armstrong, meanwhile, said that this transformation started sooner, with Tony Blair’s choice of female chief whips: “He always had women chief whips. Because he was trying to make a different argument.”
Both Milton and Armstrong spoke extensively about ensuring MPs felt supported in their workplace, both by their party and through mental health support provided by the Commons. Whether this trend began in 1997 or 2010, our interviews show that pastoral support for MPs has become increasingly central to the whips’ roles.
While a reputation for the dark arts may once have helped the whips preserve their authority, their role today is much more complex. Recent periods of thin government majorities have required whips to pay close attention to the needs and challenges of individual MPs in pursuit of the government’s agenda, while modern employment practices and expectations have begun to influence the Office. As welfare issues have skyrocketed up the agenda in Westminster, it is only right that the government office most closely concerned with its backbenchers should invest in supporting their wellbeing.