Isabel Hardman

The clumsy whipping operation playing out in parliament

The clumsy whipping operation playing out in parliament
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The debate on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill is as noisy as you might expect, given how high emotions are on both sides. What is less predictable is whether MPs will be debating the legislation tomorrow, or whether the government will pull the bill after losing its programme motion vote tonight. 

It’s not clear where the numbers are for this vote on the timetable for scrutinising the legislation. But the Tories have made the threat of pulling the legislation after a defeat and moving to an election.

Behind the scenes, whips and No. 10 aides are working feverishly to try to shore up their support, not just from Tory MPs but also those on the opposition benches.

They also had a task just to get enough Tories to speak in this afternoon’s debate: while there are endless backbenchers intervening on Boris Johnson as he addresses MPs, there were only around two dozen Conservatives who had put in to give speeches in the debate itself. The whips were trying to drum up more speakers and were asking those already planning to speak to talk for as long as they could so the Tory side didn’t look too quiet. 

The Labour whips have been busily trying to peel off their would-be rebels too. They are still threatening anxious backbenchers with losing the whip if they vote for the second reading and programme motion. Some MPs have been told that while the whips won’t do anything directly, the party’s ruling National Executive Committee will take action against them. This is particularly troubling for those who are still campaigning to be reselected. 

Part of the art of whipping is working out what’s actually going to persuade an individual member. The Tories have been struggling with their operation in the past day or so because there are so many mixed messages coming out of the top of the party, ranging from the Prime Minister’s attempts at ‘glutinous emollience’ to much more bullish dismissals of complaints about the timetable.

But Labour threatening a reasonably-sized group of colleagues with losing the whip is possibly even clumsier.

After all, as the rebels themselves point out, if the leadership starts taking away the whip from everyone who has voted differently on Europe, this will cover half the parliamentary party, including some of the whips and (if you include the party’s less recent past), the leader himself. 

Written byIsabel Hardman

Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator. She also presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is author of Why We Get The Wrong Politicians.

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