Once a week, the most important piece of paper to come across the MP’s desk is “The Whip.” It’s a detailed list of the forthcoming business in the House at least for a week ahead, sometimes two.
“THE BUSINESS FOR THE WEEK COMMENCING 23RD OCTOBER 2017 WILL BE:
MONDAY 23RD OCTOBER
Deadline for tabling: Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Church Commissioners & House of Commons Commission and Public Accounts Commission and Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission
The House meets at 2:30pm for Defence Questions
Second Reading of the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill (Whip in Charge: Andrew Stephenson)
THERE WILL BE A 3-LINE WHIP AT 9PM FOR 10PM.
Under each piece of business there appears either one line, occasionally two, and for important business three. Hence the “three-line whip.” It means that we have to be there, and to support the Government, no excuses accepted.
We got the oddest ever instruction from the Whips last week with regard to an (anyhow unenforceable) Labour motion calling for the universally-liked Universal Credits system nonetheless to be delayed in its implementation. The note from the Chief Whip read “Three-line Whip: Please abstain.” It’s the only time I have heard of a three-line whip to abstain.
Current Parliamentary arithmetic means that every vote is on a knife-edge. Had we voted on this Labour motion, the Chancellor of the Exchequer would have been called back from Washington DC, the Prime Minister from Brussels, and doubtless other Ministers all over the place for the purely symbolic action of disagreeing with the Labour Party, and a handful of Tory rebels.
The bulk of the business of government is conducted in Whitehall rather than Westminster, and is subject to scrutiny by Parliament, but not to a vote. Separation of powers between Government and Parliament is a central principle of our constitution. So Parliamentary votes are often given a great deal too much importance. It is asking questions, and holding the Government to account in a variety of ways and means that really counts, rather than votes. The whipping system ensures that the Government secures whatever votes they want by virtue of their election to govern; opposition motions routinely are dismissed by the voting power of the governing party. Clever questions, pointed debates, crafty machinations in Commons and Lords truly give the Government a headache, which no three-line whip can alleviate.
And that, after all, is exactly what Parliament is there to do – to scrutinise the government rather than necessarily support it.