Belfast Telegraph

Chris Moncrieff: Parliament's enforcers lose the whip hand over irksome backbenchers


Whips have been unable to enforce party’s stance on their MPs
Whips have been unable to enforce party’s stance on their MPs
Lady Falkender
Philip Hammond

By Chris Moncrieff

Whatever happened to the parliamentary whips, once the feared scourge of Westminster? Brexit has transformed them into figures of virtual impotence, compared with the power they wielded only a few months ago.

In those days if, as a backbencher, you fell foul of the whips, by defying your party's official line, your entire political career could be on the line.

If you were reported to your local constituency association, chances were you could be "deselected" and not allowed to stand for the party at the next election.

There was talk of the whips having black books containing intimate details of MPs' peccadilloes, which they would threaten to bruit abroad.

And errant MPs could be denied overseas jaunts, or put on tedious committees. There was even talk of arm-twisting. An altogether fearsome and all-powerful lot.

But now, nobody gives a fig for them. With scores of MPs voting all over the place over Brexit, the whips have simply lost control, their power evaporated.

It also means Tory MPs, when appealed to by the Prime Minister to unite over Brexit, simply take no notice.

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Despite accusations of "treachery", they will continue to be as wayward and disloyal as they choose.

Whether once Brexit is behind us - that will be the day - the whips will regain their former power is doubtful.

Backbenchers have tasted freedom and they are not going to surrender it lightly.

Anarchy will continue to reign at Westminster.

The death has occurred of Lady Falkender, formerly Marcia Williams, who "enjoyed" an extraordinary turbulent political and personal relationship with Prime Minister Harold Wilson at 10 Downing Street.

She made many enemies among those who were jealous of her position and her strange influence over Wilson.

His wife, Mary, hated her and once Marcia cruelly shouted at her that she had slept with Wilson several times, but that he was unsatisfactory, but whether that outburst represented the truth was never established.

There was nothing tranquil about Number 10 in those days. One official once said: "Marcia yelling at Harold was the only kind of discussion we ever heard them have."

It would be a gross over-statement to describe her as a latter-day Rasputin, but she could certainly wrap Wilson around her little finger.

Our doleful Chancellor, Philip Hammond, will be feeling even more Eeyorish than ever now - thanks, in part anyway, to Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, who does not seem over-burdened with diplomatic finesse. (The Russians have already dubbed him the "Secretary of State for War".)

Williamson's announcement that he proposed to send an aircraft carrier into the Pacific so riled the Chinese that they have cancelled Hammond's weekend jaunt to Beijing - which would at least have allowed him to escape from the Westminster swamp for a day or two.

The Cabinet has not exactly been a happy band of campers for some months now. This little incident will simply make a bad situation that much worse.

Veteran Labour MP Dennis Skinner will no doubt be furious with Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who has appealed to doctors to communicate with their patients, where possible, by email rather than the more conventional letter-writing.

Hancock has said that letters lost in the post could actually lead to loss of life among some patients.

However, Skinner, who is well into his 80s, once told me that he boycotts emails and won't respond to constituents who use that form of communication when writing to him.

Skinner says, darkly, that the use of emails costs postmen and women their jobs, so he will have nothing to do with them.

As the world marches on, it seems, Skinner stands still. All I can say is that it is going to take an almighty heave to shove him into the 21st century.

Whatever else Brexit may be, it is not regarded as a barrelful of laughs. The very reverse.

However, veteran Labour MP Barry Sheerman is at least trying to bring a smile to our glum faces.

He was wearing such a gaudy tie in the Commons the other day that even the Speaker, John Bercow, felt obliged to comment on it. Sheerman, MP for Huddersfield, explained to his parliamentary colleagues that it was the Beatles's Magical Mystery Tour vintage tie, adding that he felt he was on a magical mystery tour himself.

The rest of us will find out in just over a month from now how magical it actually is.

Belfast Telegraph


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