What Is A Whip & What Happens If It’s Withdrawn?

A number of recent political scandals have seen “the whip” being withdrawn from MPs. But what does it mean to lose the whip?

What Is A Whip & What Happens If It's Withdrawn?
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Over the past couple of weeks it seems that you can’t pick up a newspaper (old fashioned, I know), turn on the news (old fashioned, I know) or look at social media (see, I am with it really) without seeing another scandal relating to a (usually Conservative) MP.

There’s a will-they-won’t-they battle over whether the MP in question will resign or have the “whip removed”. But what does that even mean?

I thought that we’d take a look at what on Earth a whip is and why do MPs give it back or have it taken away?

What Is A Whip Anyway?

A “whip” is a a Member of Parliament or the House of Lords associated with a political party who ensures that the party’s MPs vote a particular way. There are currently 24 Conservative whips and 26 Labour whips across the two houses[1]Institute For Government: Whips: what is their role?

The term “Whip” is an old hunting term where a “whipper-in” would keep hunting dogs from wandering away from the pack[2]Wikipedia: Whip (politics). To control the hounds, the whipper-in carries a large bullwhip which they crack near the hounds to get their attention[3]PublicPeople.org: What is a Whipper-In?.

In the same way, a party sends out “The Whip” which is a document that tells the party members what matters will be arising each week, what they will need to vote on and how important that vote is[4]iNews: What is the whip in politics? Meaning of the term explained and what happens if you lose the party whip.

On occasion, MPs are allowed a “free vote” where they are able to vote however they want on an issue, but usually “The Whip” will contain instructions on how an MP should cast their vote, with the matter’s importance shown by the number of times it’s underlined.

Single-Line Whip

The MP does not have to vote but if they do the should vote along party lines.

Two-Line Whip

An MP or Lord must attend and vote unless they can give a good reason why they’re not able to be there.

Three-Line Whip

This is the most important “division” (vote) and is usually reserved for Bills on their second reading (where if the Bill is passed it moves to the Committee stage where it begins its move into law[5]UK Parliament: Second reading (Commons)). If an MP doesn’t attend or vote along party lines there can be severe consequences such as temporary suspension or having the whip removed completely[6]UK Parliament: Whips.

What Do Whips Do?

Whips are especially important when the governing party has a small majority as they ensure that all MPs will vote along party lines helping to move along legislation and bills that might otherwise fail on a free vote or get overturned by the number of opposition votes.

Whips also serve as a link between the front and back benches[7]BritPolitics: What’s the difference between UK frontbench and backbench MPs? meaning that back-benchers can get their concerns about policy and constituency matters in front of more senior Ministers, cabinet officials and even the Prime Minister.

Whips from the different parties will also liaise with each other to ensure that if an MP isn’t available to vote they are “paired” so that votes cancel each other out and they aren’t counted, meaning numbers can’t be skewed by absences[8]Institute For Government: Votes in the House of Commons.

How Do Whips Control MPs?

Usually a policy that is drawn up by a particular party will be accepted by all of that party’s MPs, however sometimes MPs won’t be happy with the wording of a bill or think that it doesn’t go far enough so may abstain from voting in protest or even vote against their party.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak found this out when he put his initial Rwanda Deportation Bill to parliament and had it pass with a majority of 44, with 29 of his own party members abstaining[9]BBC News: Rishi Sunak sees off Tory rebellion in Rwanda bill vote.

And prior to that, Liz Truss almost had a rebellion on her hands as dozens of MPs stated they would abstain on an important vote on fracking. Seen as a “vote of confidence” in Truss herself, the vote was apparently chaotic with Tory Whips physically manhandling MPs into the “correct” voting chamber causing some of them to burst into tears[10]The Independent: Fracking vote descends into chaos as Tory MPs ‘bullied and manhandled’ to defeat Labour motion.

Screenshot of a tweet by Anna McMorrin MP

Extraordinary stuff happening here during the vote on fracking which is apparently “not a confidence vote”. I’ve just witnessed one Tory member in tears being manhandled into the lobby to vote against our motion to continue the ban on fracking @BBCNewsnight @PaulBrandITV

Anna McMorrin MP, Labour MP for Cardiff North on Twitter 19:16, 19th October 2022

In order to control MPs, Whips will use a variety of tactics from arranging meetings with senior officials to promising extra funding for projects however on some occasions their tactics get a little… unorthodox.

It’s been claimed (and I need to make it clear these are all allegations, don’t sue me) that Whips have helped out MPs caught in compromising positions and then held this information over their heads in order to get them to vote a certain way.

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In 1995 Tim Fortescue, who was a Whip in Edward Health’s government in the 1970s, said in a BBC documentary (Westminster’s Secret Service):

“Anyone with any sense who was in trouble would come to the whips and tell them the truth, and say now, I’m in a jam, can you help? It might be debt, it might be … a scandal involving small boys, or any kind of scandal.

And we would do everything we can because we would store up brownie points … and if I mean, that sounds a pretty, pretty nasty reason, but it’s one of the reasons because if we could get a chap out of trouble then he will do as we ask forever more.[11]The Guardian: The discreet art of whipping: what are the limits for parliament’s enforcers?

You can view the full documentary on YouTube and there is an archive of a Spectator article that goes into detail about what the documentary covers[12]The Spectator Archive: Westminster Secret Service.

One article claimed that over 40 MPs had been involved in some form of “inappropriate sexual behaviour”[13]Business Insider: The dark world of government whips, ‘the black book’ and the Westminster sexual harassment scandal and that was back in 2017 so goodness only knows what that number is now.

Another MP claimed that Whips kept phoning his wife asking her to tell him which way to vote[14]Business Insider: The dark world of government whips, ‘the black book’ and the Westminster sexual harassment scandal and back in 2022, over a dozen MPs alleged that they had been blackmailed by party whips with threats of funding being pulled from constituencies or increasing funding if they voted a specific way[15]The Guardian: About a dozen Tory MPs said to have accused party whips of blackmail.

Interestingly, one of the MPs referenced in the article by The Guardian[16]The Guardian: About a dozen Tory MPs said to have accused party whips of blackmail was William Wragg. In The Guardian piece it states:

William Wragg, the senior Tory backbencher who accused No 10 of trying to blackmail MPs seeking to oust Boris Johnson, prepares to meet the police over his allegations

Apparently Wragg:

… told the [Parliamentary Standards] committee that Tory whips – the MPs in charge of party discipline – had threatened those suspected of wanting Mr Johnson out with the removal of government investment in their constituencies..

He also said he had received reports of government ministers, advisers and staff at No 10 “encouraging the publication of stories in the press seeking to embarrass” those suspected of lacking confidence in the prime minister[17]BBC News: MP blackmail claims: Tory William Wragg to meet police.

If the name William Wragg is familiar, that’s because he’s the Tory MP who, two weeks ago (9th of April. 2024), handed back the Conservative whip to sit as an independent MP after being embroiled in a sexting scandal that saw him send inappropriate pictures to a stranger he met on a gay dating app and divulging personal phone number of other MPs to the same person[18]Sky News: William Wragg: Tory MP at centre of Westminster sexting scandal quits parliamentary party.

Are Whips A Recent Position?

No, Far from it!

The position dates back to the 17th Century where 3 whips were made members of the Royal Household in order to ensure they were able to be paid.

As the role moved away from the Monarchy and into the parliamentary system, the term “whippers-in” was used for the role and this can be dated back to at least 1772.

While the role of a whip wasn’t properly understood at the beginning of their use, they soon became an important fixture in UK politics:

The ‘Whippers-in’ as they were called were already hard at work in 1815, but their activities attracted little attention until the 1860s… Thereafter, MPs became increasingly aware of the extent to which their own comfort depended on the quality of the government and Opposition Whips[19]House of Commons Library: The Whips Office (PDF).

By the start of the 1900s the role had pretty much become the one that we know today in terms of function and it hasn’t changed much since then so we can assume that blackmail, cajoling and a “tradition of brutalism”[20][Whips: 16 Rebels: 197: Peter Cowley](https://paperzz.com/doc/8389064/whips–16-rebels–197, Page 2) has been carried for nearly three hundred years.

What Does “Losing The Whip” Mean?

If you “lose the whip” it basically means that you are expelled from your party – you no longer have access to the weekly “Whip” dossier meaning you can’t vote along party lines and don’t know the importance of items coming up on the agenda.

It’s important to note that if you lose the whip (or hand it back by resigning from the party), you don’t automatically lose your parliamentary seat. Instead you sit as an independent MP, representing your constituency from the backbenches[21]Huffington Post: What Does Losing The Whip Mean?.

It is possible to regain The Whip. For example in 2019, 21 “rebel” MPs had the whip removed after they voted against party lines over Brexit[22]iNews: Tory rebels: Full list of 21 MPs to lose the whip over Brexit vote, from Ken Clarke to Nicholas Soames but ten of those MPs later had the whip restored[23]The Guardian: Tories restore party whip to 10 MPs who sought to block no-deal Brexit.

How Do You Get Rid Of An MP Then?

If we take William Wragg as our example, he has handed back the Conservative whip, meaning that he’s now sitting as an independent MP for his constituency of Hazel Grove in Greater Manchester[24]Financial Times: Senior MP quits Tory parliamentary party amid sexting scandal. In order for him to be ousted as that constituency’s MP he must be sacked by the Prime Minister, fully resign as an MP or commit an offence that would trigger a recall election – none of those have happened in this case.

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So, if losing the whip doesn’t mean that the MP stands down and in fact moves from a particular party to a position as an independent MP, how can they be ousted?

Full Resignation

The MP is question could resign from Parliament completely and this would trigger a by-election. In Wragg’s case, as we’re so close to a general election (one has to be held by the end of January 2025), there seems little point to hold a by-election to appoint a new MP only to have to go through the whole process again at the general election and he will be resigning once the election has been called anyway.

Suspension

If an MP is found to have breached Parliamentary standards, this can lead to a suspension. This means that the MP is barred from entering the Houses of Parliament and therefore cannot vote or conduct constituency business in Westminster, as a result they cannot act as an MP and if the suspension is longer than 10 days a “recall election” is held.

In February 2024, Scott Benton was suspended for 35 days due to lobbying[25]BBC News: Scott Benton: Lobbying scandal MP recall petition triggered and Boris Johnson would have faced a whopping 90 day suspension had he remained an MP[26]BBC News: Boris Johnson deliberately misled Parliament over Partygate, MPs find.

Breach Of Parliamentary Standards / MPs Code Of Conduct

As we saw with Boris Johnson above, he was found to have breached Parliamentary Standards by misleading Parliament over PartyGate and his suspension would have automatically triggered a recall election.

Similarly, in 2022 Conservative MP Neil Parish was suspended for breaching Parliamentary Standards[27]BBC News: What rules must MPs follow, and what happens if they break them? after being caught watching porn in the House of Commons. Twice. He was suspended while an investigation was being carried out but as it was unclear how long the investigation would take, and therefore how long his suspension would be, was told his “position was untenable[28]The Guardian: Neil Parish: MP accused of watching porn in Commons told position ‘untenable’ and urged to quit by allies” and resigned forcing a by-election.

Conviction

If an MP is convicted of any offence which requires them to be placed in prison or detained (under house arrest for example) they will be recalled.

It’s important to note that a successful conviction does not trigger an automatic recall election, that only happens after all appeals have been made.

We saw this with Conservative MP Imran Ahmad Khan who was convicted of inappropriate sexual conduct with a 15-year-old boy[29]BBC News: Imran Ahmad Khan: Ex-MP jailed for sex assault on teenage boy. He was sentenced to 18 months (a 12 month sentence automatically disqualifies you from becoming an MP[30]House of Commons Library: Recall Elections) but even though he was found guilty, Khan refused to resign his position as an MP after being convicted despite saying he was going to appeal[31]The Guardian: MP convicted of sexually molesting boy, 15, fails to keep his promise to resign. It took him a further two weeks to formally resign[32]BBC News: Imran Ahmad Khan: Sex assault conviction MP resigns.

What Is A Recall Election?

If an MP is found to have committed one of the offences listed above then a “Recall Election” is triggered.

A recall election was introduced only back in 2015 after the MPs expenses scandal came to light (how we got rid of MPs before that I need to look into further).

Once a recall election is called, a petition is sent out to the MPs constituency where people can go and sign at a designated station, or sign by proxy or by post. The petition is available to sign for 6 weeks and if 10% of the eligible voters in the constituency sign the petition, the seat becomes vacant and a by-election is called.

The recalled MP may still stand as a candidate, but may only stand for their previous party if the whip has been restored to them, otherwise they must join another party or stand as an independent.

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One recent notable recall election was that of Peter Bone in 2023. Bone was found to have bullied and harassed a staff member by an independent committee and he was suspended for 6 weeks for breaches of the MP’s code of conduct[33]BBC News: Recall petition for suspended Wellingborough MP Peter Bone opens.

The 6 week suspension automatically triggered the recall election, needing 7,940 signatures to reach the 10% required to vacate the seat and force a by-election. The petition closed with 10,505 signatures (13.2%) and Bone was summarily dismissed as a sitting MP and a by-election called[34]Northamptonshire Telegraph: Wellingborough MP Peter Bone loses seat after 10,505 people sign recall petition.

Wrapping Up

As of writing (18th April 2024), there are now more MPs suspended by their parties sitting as independents than there are elected Liberal Democrat MPs[35]The Guardian: Losing the whip: who are the 18 UK MPs sitting as independents? and as we drag ourselves along towards a general election it seems, with scandal after scandal befalling the Tories, that number will only get higher.

I’ll be taking a look at the 18 MPs in question, along with some other controversial and questionable political conduct, in an upcoming article but I have to ask: why are we seeing so many MPs suspended at the moment?

Is it because they are refusing to resign as a matter of principle (à la Jeremy Corbyn), are they clinging on to power any way they can, are we just more aware of their behaviour now thanks to the 24 hour news cycle and social media, or is there something more sinister going on at the heart of UK politics?

And what about the Whip system? At 300 years old is it outdated and not fit for purpose any more? Should we be threatening our elected officials with blackmail if they don’t do what the Prime Minister wants them to?

Let me know what you think in the comments – I’d love to hear your thoughts.

If you’d like to support me and writing/research of these topics then please consider Buying me a Coffee – anything you spare helps towards me paying for hosting and buying me the occasional (well deserved I think!) beer.
Featured Image: Generated by AI and edited in PhotoShop

References

References
1 Institute For Government: Whips: what is their role?
2 Wikipedia: Whip (politics)
3 PublicPeople.org: What is a Whipper-In?
4 iNews: What is the whip in politics? Meaning of the term explained and what happens if you lose the party whip
5 UK Parliament: Second reading (Commons)
6 UK Parliament: Whips
7 BritPolitics: What’s the difference between UK frontbench and backbench MPs?
8 Institute For Government: Votes in the House of Commons
9 BBC News: Rishi Sunak sees off Tory rebellion in Rwanda bill vote
10 The Independent: Fracking vote descends into chaos as Tory MPs ‘bullied and manhandled’ to defeat Labour motion
11 The Guardian: The discreet art of whipping: what are the limits for parliament’s enforcers?
12 The Spectator Archive: Westminster Secret Service
13, 14 Business Insider: The dark world of government whips, ‘the black book’ and the Westminster sexual harassment scandal
15, 16 The Guardian: About a dozen Tory MPs said to have accused party whips of blackmail
17 BBC News: MP blackmail claims: Tory William Wragg to meet police
18 Sky News: William Wragg: Tory MP at centre of Westminster sexting scandal quits parliamentary party
19 House of Commons Library: The Whips Office (PDF)
20 [Whips: 16 Rebels: 197: Peter Cowley](https://paperzz.com/doc/8389064/whips–16-rebels–197, Page 2)
21 Huffington Post: What Does Losing The Whip Mean?
22 iNews: Tory rebels: Full list of 21 MPs to lose the whip over Brexit vote, from Ken Clarke to Nicholas Soames
23 The Guardian: Tories restore party whip to 10 MPs who sought to block no-deal Brexit
24 Financial Times: Senior MP quits Tory parliamentary party amid sexting scandal
25 BBC News: Scott Benton: Lobbying scandal MP recall petition triggered
26 BBC News: Boris Johnson deliberately misled Parliament over Partygate, MPs find
27 BBC News: What rules must MPs follow, and what happens if they break them?
28 The Guardian: Neil Parish: MP accused of watching porn in Commons told position ‘untenable’ and urged to quit by allies
29 BBC News: Imran Ahmad Khan: Ex-MP jailed for sex assault on teenage boy
30 House of Commons Library: Recall Elections
31 The Guardian: MP convicted of sexually molesting boy, 15, fails to keep his promise to resign
32 BBC News: Imran Ahmad Khan: Sex assault conviction MP resigns
33 BBC News: Recall petition for suspended Wellingborough MP Peter Bone opens
34 Northamptonshire Telegraph: Wellingborough MP Peter Bone loses seat after 10,505 people sign recall petition
35 The Guardian: Losing the whip: who are the 18 UK MPs sitting as independents?

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