George Eustice: Whips should not push loyalty too far

The friction in the run-up to last week's vote on Europe led some to bemoan the methods of the whips office, with one Sunday newspaper devoting a double-page spread to a rumour that the chief whip might have used some colourful language while trying to persuade an MP to support the Government. 'Who are these whips?' screamed one email I received.

George Eustice: whips should not push loyalty too far
George Eustice: whips should not push loyalty too far

People should not shoot the messenger. As a former head of the press office, I have always been able to empathise with the whips office. Both can only offer counsel when a course of action is being decided on a contentious issue. Once a position has been decided, both have to try to defend it regardless of how difficult it is. And when things do go wrong, it is invariably either the head of media or the chief whip who is invited to answer the question, 'who allowed this to happen?' during the next day's morning meeting.

The mystery that surrounds the role of the whips means they sometimes get a bad press. In truth they represent a bridge between the backbenchers and Number 10 and they pass opinions in both directions. For a party system to work effectively, you need to have whips and without a party system, manifestos would be meaningless and no-one would get anything done.

But governments know only too well that they need to tread with care because loyalty has its limits. Political parties need people who are both team players but also of independent mind, but all parties have their share of people who are not team players. The thing that makes most MPs support their party is not some threat to their career but loyalty to their cause and it is a precious thing that should be nurtured. No-one wants to help their opponents.

I have always argued that Parliament would be stronger if we could find more opportunities to allow free votes and more tolerance of bills being amended at the committee stage, perhaps by having an advisory 'one-line whip' rather than an intolerant 'three-line whip' when scrutinising legislation. Maybe it will catch on.

George Eustice is Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth and a former press secretary to David Cameron

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