It is now much harder to whip MPs into shape

Daily Express - - Inside Politics - [email protected]­press.co.uk

CHIEF Whip Ju­lian Smith ur­gently needs to find some sub­tler tools of per­sua­sion than the pair of leather lashes that dec­o­rate the man­tel­piece of his of­fice at Num­ber Nine Down­ing Street. The tor­ture in­stru­ments, one with a bone han­dle and the other bear­ing some nasty metal studs, are kept on show as a sym­bol of the Cab­i­net en­forcer’s role in dis­ci­plin­ing Tory MPs. Yet with less than four days to go un­til the crunch Com­mons vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal, Mr Smith is strug­gling to herd a par­lia­men­tary party that is on the brink of anar­chy.

Tues­day’s divi­sion is threat­en­ing to be one of the big­gest Gov­ern­ment de­feats in West­min­ster his­tory. With more than 100 Tories pledged to vote down the Prime Minister’s agree­ment in Brus­sels, the Chief Whip’s task is begin­ning to look like Don Quixote reach­ing for the un­reach­able star.

Mr Smith’s job has been made far harder by a steady ero­sion of the power of the par­lia­men­tary whips over the past two decades. The dark arts of bul­ly­ing and in­tim­i­da­tion de­ployed in past cen­turies, and pop­u­larised in the char­ac­ter of Fran­cis Urquhart in the House Of Cards nov­els, are sim­ply not avail­able to put the squeeze on rebels itching to throw out Mrs May’s widely-re­viled com­pact with the EU.

In the past, MPs were of­ten cowed by the feared “black books” kept in whips’ of­fices that listed se­cret pec­ca­dil­los and mis­de­meanours ripe for pub­lic ex­po­sure of those who failed to fall into line in cru­cial di­vi­sions. Less cen­so­ri­ous pub­lic at­ti­tudes to mar­i­tal fi­delity and sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion have made such an ap­proach in­ef­fec­tive. Old-fash­ioned stron­garm tac­tics are also likely to fall foul of Par­lia­ment’s tough new rules against ha­rass­ment and bul­ly­ing.

EVEN the ul­ti­mate threat of call­ing a gen­eral elec­tion is off the ta­ble thanks to the Fixed-term Par­lia­ment Act, which gives a third of the Com­mons the power to veto a poll ear­lier than sched­uled.

Bribery is also a far less re­li­able whips’ weapon in the 21st-cen­tury Com­mons. Mr Smith’s pre­de­ces­sor Gavin Wil­liamson said dur­ing his spell lead­ing the Gov­ern­ment Whips’ Of­fice: “I don’t very much be­lieve in the stick, but it is amaz­ing what can be achieved with a sharp­ened car­rot.” Other than the odd knight­hood or Privy Coun­cil seat, there are pre­cious few car­rots for the Gov­ern­ment to hand out to win loy­alty.

The Par­lia­men­tary ex­penses scan­dal in 2009 led to the end of the al­lowances sys­tem that let party lead­er­ships turn a blind eye to back­benchers lav­ishly re­ward­ing them­selves from the pub­lic purse in re­turn for vot­ing as in­structed. Com­mit­tee chair­man­ships, which bring higher salaries, are now elected rather than be­ing handed out. And prom­ises of min­is­te­rial jobs are hardly en­tic­ing from a Gov­ern­ment that few ex­pect to last.

De­void of both car­rots and sticks, Mr Smith and his team have to rely on per­sua­sion alone to try to win over po­ten­tial rebels. “It re­ally isn’t about threats and in­duce­ments any more. It is a mat­ter of reach­ing out and try­ing to change hearts and minds,” one source in the Whips Of­fice told me.

HEARTS and minds in the Com­mons are prov­ing im­mutable and, if any­thing, opin­ion is hard­en­ing against Mrs May’s deal. Yesterday rebels were em­pha­sis­ing that the so-called back­stop mech­a­nism to pro­tect the open border be­tween North­ern Ire­land and Ir­ish Repub­lic was far from the only un­ac­cept­able clause in the Brexit deal.

Sir Wil­liam Cash, the vet­eran Tory Euroscep­tic MP, said: “Re­mem­ber, the back­stop is only part of the dis­as­ter of the With­drawal agree­ment.” Brex­i­teers com­plain that the en­tire agree­ment fails to de­liver gen­uine na­tional sovereignty.

Mr Smith and his team are de­ter­mined to keep go­ing with their friendly per­sua­sion ef­forts right up to the vote at around 7pm on Tues­day, as­sum­ing the divi­sion goes ahead. After­wards, the odds are they will end up re­gret­ting the lack of a cut­ting edge avail­able to the mod­ern par­lia­men­tary whip. JEREMY COR­BYN’S claim that he would rather watch I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! than take part in a live head-to-head Brexit de­bate with Theresa May has sur­prised some at West­min­ster given the show is spon­sored by Gi­bral­tar­reg­is­tered bingo firm Tombola.

Labour has called for stricter curbs on gam­bling ad­verts on tele­vi­sion. “He’s es­sen­tially given the show an ad­di­tional push, help­ing the gam­bling com­pany grow prof­its,” said one Tory in­sider. NIGEL FARAGE is ex­pected to take an­other step to­wards a come­back to the po­lit­i­cal front­line next week. The MEP, who quit Ukip af­ter fall­ing out with party leader Ger­ard Bat­ten, is set to un­veil a new group­ing in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment in Stras­bourg on Mon­day. “It’s the begin­ning of a new pro-Brexit party,” said a Ukip source.

SA­JID JAVID and Com­mons Leader An­drea Lead­som piqued the in­ter­est of Tory gos­sips by throw­ing a joint Christ­mas drinks re­cep­tion for MPs. Some are ask­ing whether the soiree by the two Cab­i­net min­is­ters – who were on op­po­site sides dur­ing the EU ref­er­en­dum cam­paign – is the sign of a “dream ticket” lead­er­ship duo for a fu­ture con­test. JAMES CLEV­ERLY gave col­leagues a re­minder that not ev­ery­one in the coun­try is talk­ing about Brexit round the clock. “Read­ing the po­lit­i­cal news on my phone on the train to work this morn­ing, the two young women next to me hav­ing an il­lu­mi­nat­ing con­ver­sa­tion about nip­ple pierc­ing,” the Con­ser­va­tive Party deputy chair­man an­nounced on Twit­ter.

PER­SUA­SIVE? Chief whip Ju­lian Smith has pre­cious few op­tions

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