Role of Whips in the UK, Put Simply

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By Managing Director Matt Gillow

The Chief Whip and his team of Whips are a source of much intrigue in popular culture – Francis Urquhart in the original House of Cards raised questions about the dodgy tricks they perform to keep their party in line, and Francis Underwood in the modern US version only exasperated these questions.

Whilst MPs, naturally, sympathise with the majority of their party’s policy – they will on occasion disagree (more, in some cases – Jeremy Corbyn has rebelled against the whip 428 times, according to some reports.) The role of the whipping team is, in brief, to keep their MPs in line and try to convince them to vote with their party when they are tempted to rebel.

Every week, the whips send out a circular to their party’s MPs, detailing the business of parliament that coming week. Special attention is paid to ‘divisions,’ usually parliamentary votes, the importance of which is noted by how many times it is underlined. A three-line whip, which is often mentioned in the news, is when an order of business or a vote is thrice underlined – normally applying to significant votes such as second readings of bills. Defying a three-line whip is seen as very serious, and previously has resulted in MPs being forced to, ultimately, sit as an independent until they redeem their whip – the verge of being expelled from the party!

Together with the Leader of the House of Commons, Whips are responsible for running the general business of parliament, and for the ‘pairing system,’ in which MPs of opposite parties often agree not to vote in parliament on certain issues, should their significant pair be absent on other business.

The role of the whip becomes increasingly important, the smaller the majority of the governing party gets. This is because, should even a small number of MPs rebel against the government, it would be significantly more likely to lose a vote and thus be seen as weak. On the other hand, however, the government cannot impose a three-line whip for every vote, for risk of being seen as dictatorial, reducing the efficacy of the three-line whip, and risking mutiny amongst their MPs.

Image rights: Henry Kellner @ Commons Wikimedia

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