In describing the operation of party whips as threats and blackmail – and suggesting that some cases ought to be referred to the police – William Wragg has drawn back a veil from the dark arts that are often the stuff of television drama but not otherwise brought into public light. It is a clash between age-old practices and modern notions of an MP’s responsibility to the public. Given rising public mistrust of government – and growing demands for MPs to act in constituents’ interests – his challenge may well bring about real change.
Wragg, a senior figure as chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in the House of Commons, has made two sorts of accusations. The first, which he describes as blackmail, is that whips engage in threats to expose the personal life and secrets of rebellious MPs. The second is that they threaten that public spending and other support for the MP’s constituency will be withdrawn if the MP votes against the government. He claims to have evidence of such tactics that might, he says, warrant referral to the police.
Such tactics are part of the whips’ time-honoured armoury to bring recalcitrant MPs into line. In defence of the whips’ office, it is a necessary institution to communicate with MPs as well as to marshal party support. The UK does after all have a system designed to produce governments with majorities, so that they can get legislation passed. Some would argue that Wragg’s accusations are the symptom of an incompetent whips office that is failing in one of its main functions: to read MPs’ anger and let the prime minister know the point beyond which they will not be pushed. This row comes soon after Conservative MPs’ fury at being whipped to support the government over Owen Paterson (the MP set to be suspended for breaches of lobbying rules) only then to see the prime minister do a U-turn.
All the same, what Wragg has caught is the changing spirit of the times. Voters want their MPs to stand up for them; they see the role increasingly as one of constituency representative. To an extent, this has always been the case; they have preferred to see their MPs as delegates and MPs preferred to see themselves as representatives. That is a debate that goes back to the 18th century and Edmund Burke, the philosopher and statesman. But voters are certainly vocal in their interpretation now, while MPs have become more explicit in what they promise them. Meanwhile, if voters know about whipping, they do not like the notion, as plenty of phone-in programmes show. MPs are bound to respond to this in interpreting their role. The more who see an alternative political career to promotion through ministerial ranks – for example, as head of a committee, like Wragg – the more independent they will become.
Wragg also raises the difficult question of where the line should be between the rewards that might reasonably flow from an MP’s support for party policy and unacceptable pressure. Many voters would think promotion the kind of reward that should be expected – and punishment for a constituency unacceptable. In any case, the government says that it is allocating money across the country with a view to levelling up; it is a distortion of this prime economic policy to use it also as a tactic for punishing or rewarding MPs for their behaviour in the Commons.
In the case of threats to expose personal life, Wragg has usefully invited the whips to consider whether some instances breach the law. If so – and the cases he says he has have yet to be tested – it will bring about important change in the whips’ behaviour. However, the whips may well also find that such threats are generally diminishing in their power; phone cameras and social media are arguably the greater threat to MPs’ privacy.
Even if Wragg’s challenge does not produce the references to the police that he suggests are warranted, he may well have set change in motion, and that is a good thing. He has drawn attention to the clash between old practices and a changing sense of MPs’ public responsibility. When shown the darker side of parliament, as in the expenses scandal, the public often recoils. The demand from constituents for MPs to act in their interests above all will only grow.