The recent confidence vote against Boris Johnson dealt a blow to the prime minister’s leadership, revealing what level of opposition he is facing within his own party. For those of us who research parliament, situations like this are an interesting look at what goes on behind the scenes in party politics.
MPs have to heed what they are told by constituents, local parties, advisors and public polls – but above all, the whip. Parliamentary Whips are MPs who are appointed by each leader of the party to encourage loyalty to their common cause. Government whips try to ensure that the government passes its business – mostly laws – and that the prime minister receives loyalty.
In the case of a vote of confidence in the leader (a Tory tradition), the whip uses a mixture of incentives (such as promotion) and threatens to prevent lawmakers from submitting letters to the backbench chair for the vote. If that fails, they try to persuade him not to vote against the prime minister.
Opposition whips engage in similar strategies, but to scrutinize and undermine the government and its goals. Under the leadership of the Chief Whip, Whips work to create solidarity and obedience among the larger team of the political party.
Earlier they used to communicate by sending instructions on paper, then by pager, and now messages are sent over email or WhatsApp. It is not so different from the communication team in any organization. But in Parliament, exposure to the media and the public adds to the heat.
As political scientist Phil Cowley has found, over the past 50 years, government whips have struggled more and more to keep their members together. On the one hand, the government has about 160 to 170 MPs on the payroll (in the form of ministers, whips, parliamentary private secretaries, party vice-presidents and trade ambassadors) who have to vote with a whip to keep their jobs. On the other hand, MPs have become more rebellious in each parliamentary session since the 1950s.
Whipping has changed dramatically, as I explain in my Anthropology of Lawmakers at Work. Whips used to intimidate new backbenchers with threats and sometimes violence – vote as you are told or you will not be promoted as minister, place on a select committee or allowed to “slip” (absence from vote) Will go Persistent offenders may threaten to withdraw party whips (indicating their party’s membership), endorse the next election, or release harmful information about them to the media.
Read more: Conservatives in crisis: where the whipping stops and the blackmail begins
But the power of political parties and the whips and leaders within them has weakened in recent years, making backbench support far less credible. Parliament has absorbed a general cultural decline in respect, thereby reducing the automatic respect for party leaders.
Leaders tend to be more distant from their backbenchers because they no longer network and chat with them in tea rooms, bars and aisles. To garner support at Tory 1922 committee meetings, for example—relying on a stellar performance—when talking to the entire party—became risky without building that everyday relationship.
Meanwhile, MPs spend more time in their constituencies as seats are deemed less secure in elections, and to respond to demands for help from their constituents. So they are increasingly being influenced by constituents and local party members.
As loyalty to leaders becomes more fragile, MPs find their leaders increasingly frustrated. Politicians who make poor decisions or commit malpractices are far more easily exposed. Leaders or whips using intimidation can within minutes find their words repeated on Twitter, as well as outrageous remarks from those they have threatened.
cracking the whip
The severity of punishments for revolting lawmakers fluctuates depending on the party culture, the attitude of the leader, and the size of the government’s majority. During the Blair/Brown governments of 1997–2010, their vast majority made the reprimand unnecessary.
Jeremy Corbyn, the second most rebellious lawmaker during this period, explained to me in an interview that his whip had loosened considerably. He described how a typical phone call with his then whip Sadiq Khan (now the Mayor of London) would go:
Sadiq: Hi Jeremy, just wanted to see how you plan to vote on Tuesday.
Jeremy: I’m going to vote against it.
Jeremy: I mean against the government.
Sadiq: Yes, I know.
Jeremy: Sadiq, at this point you’re going to get me to support the party.
Sadiq: I can’t be bothered. Would you consider abstaining?
Jeremy: No, sorry, I can’t do that.
Whipping involves gradually gathering more intelligence and persuasion than discipline – especially during the time I was researching lawmakers (2010-2015). However, this pattern suddenly changed again after the Brexit referendum.
As prime minister, Johnson showed his desperation to 21 anti-Brexit Tory rebels by removing the whip in September 2019. Several people lost their seats in the general election a few months later.
In general, people support each other in politics when they like, trust and trust each other; They follow leaders when they feel recognized and represented by them. So consensus on ideology and values is not the only driver of loyalty. If social bonds weaken, parties may no longer rely on loyal voting outside or inside Parliament, and may even find that their supporters turn against them.
The more intimidation the Conservative whip uses to keep Johnson in power, the more enduring loyalty is likely to end. They have burned many commitments and bridges, it seems that the whip will be unable to salvage them beyond 2022.