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For want of a whip...
15 Feb, 2019

... the Kingdom was lost

Charles Parselle casts his legal eye over the breakdown of party discipline in the past and in the present Brexit chaos. The root cause lay in David Cameron's failure to enforce the party whip to support the Government's line that EU membership was best for Britain. Now, Labour should have a common position and enforce it by the whip. That common position should be set by the membership: Remain in the EU.



History is likely to record that the past three years of parliamentary political history have been the most undisciplined and chaotic since the mid-17th century. Yet there have been many more periods of greater danger to the U.K., from the civil war through 1945, from the long period of imperial acquisition to the equally difficult period of dissolution. The civil war was challenging for Parliament, which had to endure Cromwell’s summary dismissal (“You have sat here too long…in God's name, go!”) and more so for the King, who had to endure beheading. 

Yet since that time it seems nothing has caused so much turbulence as Brexit, for which the responsibility must be laid squarely at the door of David Cameron, who chose to involve the entire country in his efforts to solve internal Tory party dissension. He did something that he would live to regret: releasing his MPs including even his Cabinet ministers from the restraints of the party whip. 

Whips came into common practice in the late 18th century after it was found that the system of wholesale corruption developed by Sir Robert Walpole as Britain's first de facto prime minister had unsustainable drawbacks. Patronage still retained advantages as it does to this day, but the foxhunting members of 18th century parliaments found that it was about as easy to control party members by use of government whips, as it was to control their packs of hounds by the same means. 

Hounds are supposed to chase after the fox, but they are easily distracted. Wikipedia explains: “[The whips'] job is to keep the pack all together, especially to prevent the hounds from straying or 'riotting’.” It would probably be impossible to run a modern parliament except by the whip system to control party members and restrain their tendency to stray and ‘riot(t),’ of which the country has seen a good deal these past three years. 

David Cameron found this out the hard way, and now he sits in his shed alone with his hated memoirs, presumably unable to figure out any way to redeem his legacy. Reportedly he intends to ‘trash’ Michael Gove for betraying him, but Gove has already etched his own headstone with his “[we’ve] had Quite Enough of Experts.” The Prime Minister also has reserved her headstone: “Nothing Has Changed,” and a maximum of thirty-nine months remaining of a political career marred by serial defeats including by the heaviest defeat ever suffered by any Prime Minister in a contested vote. 

Though billed by her as “a [vote] that will define our country for decades to come,” after losing it by a stunning 230 votes, Mrs. May opted simply to ignore it and promise her party a re-negotiation with the EU, a promise that may prove undeliverable. And so she plays her game of chicken even as her self-set deadline of March 29 draws ever closer, daring the EU to swerve before she does. 

Cameron released his MPs from the whip because he had no choice, given that his purpose was to quash dissent in the party by removing the Eurosceptic thorn that had irritated the Conservative party for so many years. It was a miscalculation that he then made worse by resigning immediately after the referendum, leaving turmoil that shows no signs of subsiding. 

The idea of leaving the EU was not a Labour party idea, nor was there any particular reason why the Labour Party should not have adopted a common position and enforced it by means of party whips. 

At a critical moment in Britain’s history, Labour is led by a man whose career as an MP has been chiefly notable by his willingness to defy his own party whips. While Labour was in government, Jeremy Corbyn was consistently the most rebellious Labour MP, voting against his party 428 times, and in opposition, he was among the top 10 most rebellious Labour MPs, according to Philip Cowley’s research. He is also known to be a long time Eurosceptic. 

Winnie-the-Pooh thought that if the person you are talking to doesn't appear to be listening, “It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.” But the Badger who came from a different world-view, indeed from a different book, would say: “Never withdraw the whips - never, never, never, never, never.”

 

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