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The Chief Whip is a political office in some legislatures assigned to an elected member whose task is to administer the whipping system that ensures that members of the party attend and vote as the party leadership desires.

United Kingdom

The Whips Office

In Britishmarker politics, the Chief Whip of the governing party in the House of Commonsmarker is usually appointed as Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury so that the incumbent, who represents the whips in general, has a seat and a voice in the Cabinet. By virtue of holding the office of Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, the Government Chief Whip has an official residence at 12 Downing Streetmarker. However, the Chief Whip's office is currently located at 9 Downing Streetmarker.

As shown in BBC television series Yes Minister and House of Cards, the Chief Whip can wield a large amount of power over those in their party, up to and including cabinet ministers, being seen to speak at all times with the voice of the Prime Minister. Margaret Thatcher was famed for using her Chief Whip as a "cabinet enforcer" (there were rumours that her first chief whip, Michael Jopling was the closest cabinet colleague of Thatcher).

The role of Chief Whip is regarded as secretive, as the Whip is concerned with the discipline of their own party's Members of Parliament and never appears on television or radio in their capacity as whip. Whips in the House of Commons do not speak in debates.

The Government Chief Whip is assisted by the Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, and Assistant Whips. In order to give them a salary for what is in essence a party office, the government whips are appointed to positions in HM Treasurymarker and in the Royal Household under the Lord Steward of The Household. The whips are not active in either of these departments. The Deputy Chief Whip is Treasurer of HM Household, the next two Whips are Comptroller of HM Household and Vice-Chamberlain of HM Household, and the remaining Whips are Lords Commissioners of the Treasury. Assistant Whips, and Whips of opposition parties, generally do not receive such appointments.

The current Government Whips in the Commons are:

A similar arrangement exists for Whips in the House of Lordsmarker. The Government Chief Whip is usually appointed Captain of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms, while the Deputy Chief Whip is usually appointed Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard. Other Whips, who are fewer in number due to the decreased importance of party discipline in the Lords, are appointed as Lords in Waiting if men and Baronesses in Waiting if women. As well as their duties as whips, Lords whips speak in the Chamber (unlike Commons whips) to support departmental ministers or act as a spokesperson for a department where there is no Lords minister. The current Lords whips are:

Outside of the government, the Official Opposition Chief Whip in the Commons, like the Leader of the Opposition, receives a stipend in addition to his parliamentary salary, because his additional responsibilities will make him unable to hold down another job. Patrick McLoughlin has been the Official Opposition Chief Whip since 2005. Paul Burstow was elected Chief Whip of the Liberal Democrats, the third largest party, in March 2006 - this position does not receive a stipend.

The whips, although superficially dictatorial, do act as communicators between the backbenchers and the party leadership. Ultimately if backbenchers are unhappy with the leadership's position they can threaten to revolt during a vote and force the leadership to compromise.

While the whip was formally introduced to British politics by the Irish Parliamentary Party under Charles Stewart Parnell in the 1880s, in 1846 the Duke of Wellington advised the new Conservative Party Leader Lord Stanley to ensure that his "whippers-in" were personally loyal.

The whip as a party line

In the UK Parliament the importance of a vote is indicated by underlining of items on the "whip", which is the name of the letter the Chief Whip sends to all the MPs in their party at the start of the week. This letter informs them of the schedule for the days ahead, and includes the sentence, "Your attendance is absolutely essential" next to each debate in which there will be a vote. This sentence is underlined one, two or three times depending on the consequences that will be suffered if they do not turn up, hence the origin of the terms one-line whip, two-line whip and three-line whip. The actual direction of their vote is communicated to them in the chamber by hand signals during the division when the time comes (usually after the division bell has been rung). Even though it determines the outcome of the votes crucially far more than the debate, neither these instructions, which are visible to everyone in the chamber, nor the "whip" letter at the start of the week, are recorded in Hansard, as they are considered an internal matter of the political party; indeed, the system exists because any explicit direction to an MP as to how they should vote would technically be a Breach of Parliamentary Privilege.

The consequences for defying the party whip depend on the circumstances and are usually negotiated with the party whip in advance. The party whip's job is to ensure the outcome of the vote, so the situation is different and more important for a party which holds the majority, because if their members obey the whip they can always win. They can make allowances for MPs who are away on important business, whose political circumstances require them to take a particular single issue very seriously, or if there is a mass revolt. Theoretically at least, expulsion from the party is automatically consequent from defying a three-line whip.

An example of this is in the case of John Major's government. Nine conservative Members of Parliament had their whips removed after voting against the government on its stance to the Maastricht Treaty. It was also the only time when MPs who are being whipped were co-operating with the opposite side's whips.

There are some cases in which whips are removed because an issue is a matter of conscience. These include adoption, religion and equal opportunities. The impact of a whip being imposed on a matter of conscience can be damaging for a party leader. One such case was that of Iain Duncan-Smith, who imposed a three-line whip on equal rights for gay people. Several Conservative MPs voted against the official party line, and Duncan-Smith's authority was weakened.

Whips can often be brutal to backbenchers to secure their vote, and will resort to a mixture of promises, threats, blackmail and extortion to force an unpopular vote. A good whip will know secrets and incriminating information about Members of Parliament. A whip should know major figures in an MP's local constituency party and the MP's agent. There have been cases where Members of Parliament were wheeled from far afield to vote for the government on a crucial vote. Former MP Joe Ashton remembered a case from the dying days of James Callaghan's government:

"I remember the famous case of Leslie Spriggs, the then-Member for St. Helens. We had a tied vote and he was brought to the House in an ambulance having suffered a severe heart attack. The two Whips went out to look in the ambulance and there was Leslie Spriggs laid there as though he was dead. I believe that John Stradling Thomas said to Joe Harper, 'How do we know that he is alive?' So he leaned forward, turned the knob on the heart machine, the green light went around, and he said, 'There, you've lost--it's 311.' That is an absolutely true story. It is the sort of nonsense that used to happen. No one believes it, but it is true."

For a minister, or even an unpaid Parliamentary Private Secretary, the consequences for defying the party whip are absolute: they are dismissed from their job immediately, if they have not already resigned, and return to being a backbencher. Sometimes their votes in Parliament are called the "payroll vote", because of the fact that they can be taken for granted. The consequences for a back-bencher can include the lack of future promotion to a government post, a reduction of party campaigning effort in his constituency during the next election, deselection by his local party activists, or, in extreme circumstances, "withdrawal of the whip" and expulsion from the party.

Lists of Chief Whips by party

Other jurisdictions

There are also Chief Whips in:

The United States uses the similar terms, majority whip and minority whip.

See also


  1. Whipping and the death of politica conscience

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