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Wales Online
Wales Online
Jonathan Bunn, PA & Tim Walker

Who are the whips, what do they do and why are they important?

The confusion on Wednesday in Parliament, the day before Liz Truss quit as prime minister, led to reports that Government chief whip Wendy Morton and her deputy Craig Whittaker had resigned. It all added to the sense of crisis inside Truss's government which was followed by Thursday's momentous events.

Ahead of the PM's resignation, Number 10 said they remained in post, but events have put the role of whips and how they function back in the spotlight. Here is an explanation of the whipping system in Parliament:

What do the whips do?

The role of whips is to broadly maintain discipline among MPs, ensuring they toe the line and vote in accordance with their party’s agenda. Whips also play a key role in maintaining lines of communication between the party leadership and backbench MPs, while closely monitoring any signs of potential discord which could lead to disruption.

It is believed the use of term "whip" in Parliament goes back to the 18th century and derives from the hunting term “whipper in” – the person who used a whip to keep the hounds from straying from the pack.

How do they attempt to maintain party discipline?

Managing what recent developments showed can sometimes be fraught relationships requires striking a tricky balance between asserting authority and using gentle persuasion to keep potential troublemakers in check. This means the core work of whips goes on behind closed doors, creating a sense of mystery surrounding their role as they carefully manoeuvre between internal factions, vested interests and opposition counterparts.

This has created an impression that whips are the arch manipulators of politics, employing underhand tactics, trading favours and striking deals to ensure they get their way. This perception has been maintained in part by some commentators, with journalist Jeremy Paxman once describing them as “keepers of Parliament’s dark secrets and custodians of the baubles of public life”.

While this view may appear exaggerated, belonging to a bygone age of political “dark arts” when whips kept “black books” of MPs’ misdemeanours for leverage, the behaviour of whips has been questioned in recent months. During the “partygate” scandal which engulfed Boris Johnson’s government earlier this year, Conservative chair of the Public Administration and Constitutions Affairs select committee, William Wragg, accused Tory whips of blackmailing MPs by warning their constituencies would lose investment if they continued efforts to oust the Prime Minister.

What is 'the whip' and what are the consequences of defying it?

Beyond backroom influencing by whips, the key disciplinary tool is “the whip”, which is an instruction on how to vote. The importance of the vote is determined on how many times it is underlined in the notification.

A one-line whip is seen as a “request” for MPs to attend a vote rather than a requirement, while the rarely-used two-line whip dictates that attendance is “necessary” and MPs must request permission not to take part. A three-line whip, as imposed on Tory MPs for Wednesday’s vote on fracking, is “essential” and ignoring it could lead to the whip being removed.

This would mean any MP who chose to do so would no longer represent their party and be required to sit as an independent. This initially happened to the 21 Tory MPs who voted against the Government in 2019 to enable the passing of the so-called Benn Act, named after Labour MP Hilary Benn, which was designed to prevent a no-deal Brexit and later repealed.

It was initially unclear what will happen to the dozens of Tory MPs who voted against the Government on Wednesday, with No 10 saying they would face “proportionate disciplinary action”.

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