The whipping system and free votes

What is the ‘whip’?

Each Thursday, ahead of the next parliamentary week, the party leadership distributes a schedule of expected parliamentary votes to their MPs containing instructions on how to vote. This is referred to as the ‘whip’. MPs are usually expected to show loyalty to their party when voting in Parliament.

The whip is also issued in the House of Lords, although party discipline is less strictly enforced among peers.

Who are ‘the whips’?

The main political parties appoint MPs and Peers to ensure their colleagues tow the party line and abide by the instructions contained in the ‘whip’. Drawing on the name of the system, these MPs and Peers are called ‘whips’. The Labour and the Conservative parties both appoint around 14 whips, while the smaller parties have smaller whipping operations.

Whips also play a key role in the organisation of parliamentary business, acting as a line of communication between the governing and opposition parties (often referred to as ‘the usual channels’), distributing information to parliamentarians and allocating their party’s membership of parliamentary committees.

The whips also organise ‘pairing’ arrangements, which allow MPs to be absent from a vote by matching them with an opposition MP who also agrees to be absent, thereby effectively ‘cancelling out’ their vote.

Until 2010, whips also decided which MPs should chair select committees, but chairs are now elected by the whole House.

Type of whip

What it means

When it is used

One-line whip Considered advisory, providing a guide to party policy on an issue. MPs are ‘requested’ to attend the vote, but are not usually expected to do so, and do not need to inform the party whips if they will be absent. However, if they do vote, they are expected to vote as instructed. Used for uncontroversial or inconsequential parliamentary votes  
Two-line whip A more serious instruction for how to vote. MPs are told that their attendance is ‘necessary’ and are expected to remain on, or close to, the parliamentary estate, and vote as instructed. Permission from a party whip is usually needed to miss a vote.  Used for more important votes on key policy issues 
Three-line whip An explicit instruction to MPs that their attendance is ‘essential’, and that they must vote as instructed. MPs are expected to be in the voting lobbies within six minutes of a vote being called. Express permission is usually required from a party whip to miss a vote, and is rarely granted. Used for the most serious votes, including votes of confidence and second readings of major bills

What happens if an MP defies the whip?

There are no fixed consequences for disobeying the whip, with the penalties varying depending on the type of whip and the individual and political circumstances.

It is not always clear if an MP has disobeyed the whip, as voting instructions aren’t publicly available. But sanctions for breaching the whip can include reduced prospects of promotion within the party or appointment to an MP’s preferred committee, a less desirable parliamentary office, or selection for unpopular parliamentary duties such as membership of delegated legislation committees. Repeatedly disobeying the whip may also affect a MP’s chance of re-selection by their constituency party, or re-election at a general election.

What does it mean to have the whip removed?

The most serious breaches can result in the ‘whip being removed’ – meaning that the MP ceases to represent their party and sits as an independent MP. Nine Conservative MPs had the whip removed in 1993, after failing to support John Major’s government in a vote of confidence subject to a three-line whip.  21 Conservative MPs had the whip removed after voting against the government to allow MPs to take control of the Commons timetable to pass the Benn Act.

Members of a party’s frontbench are usually expected to resign if they wish to vote against their party’s position and are highly likely to lose their role if they break a three-line whip.

Who decides how to discipline a dissenting MP?

This is ultimately a matter of politics. MPs may escape sanction if they have widespread support within the party, or if elements of the leadership have sympathy for their actions. Minority governments are faced with an acute challenge in disciplining MPs – simultaneously relying heavily on party loyalty, while lacking the numbers to sustain sanctions such as removal of the whip.

MPs who have lost the whip may have it restored at a later date. Two Conservative MPs, Charlie Elphicke and Andrew Griffiths, who had had the whip removed over misconduct allegations, had the whip restored in January 2019 to allow them to vote in a vote of confidence in Theresa May as party leader. It is possible that Conservative ‘rebels’ who had the whip removed over the Benn Act may have the whip restored if they vote in favour of Boris Johnson’s revised Brexit deal.

How common is it for MPs to disobey a three-line whip?

It is relatively rare, but Brexit has put significant pressure on party discipline. In 2017, 47 Labour MPs disobeyed a three-line whip requiring the party’s MPs to support the triggering of Article 50, while 118 Conservative MPs voted against the Government’s Brexit deal in January 2019. Three-line whips have also been defied outside of the Brexit context, with 91 Conservative MPs voting against the Government on House of Lords reform in 2012. 21 Conservative MPs voted against a three-line whip to vote in favour of MPs taking control of the Commons timetable to pass the Benn Act in September 2019.

In some cases, MPs have been accused of being conveniently absent from votes that have been whipped against their presumed voting intentions – preventing them having to choose whether to ignore the whip.

What is a free vote?

This means the vote is not whipped, and MPs may vote as they wish. Free votes are one of the few occasions when members of the Government – usually bound to support the government position by the convention of collective cabinet responsibility – can express their independent opinion in the Commons. In 1971, Prime Minister Edward Heath gave Conservative MPs a free vote on whether to join the European Economic Community.

Traditionally, free votes have been held on matters of conscience, such as fox hunting, assisted dying and military intervention, when it is accepted that MPs of the same party may have different views. In some circumstances, free votes can be used as a way of managing internal party politics – particularly when there are strongly held and competing views amongst the party leadership. In such cases, allowing a free vote can prevent an embarrassing government defeat or party rebellion.   

Update date: 
Wednesday, March 6, 2019
Authors: Joe Marshall