MPs being wheeled in from hospital to vote is only the tip of the iceberg. With long, demanding hours and little chance to work on pet projects, things are harder than ever for our politiciansby Marie Le Conte / June 26, 2018 / Leave a comment
Theatre-goers with only a mild taste for politics were probably shocked to see elderly and sickly MPs wheeled into Parliament to vote in This House—but not as shocked as some commentators were to see the practice repeated last week.
James Graham’s hit portrayed life in Westminster under the Callaghan government of the late 1970’s. But some of its bleakest quirks have recently become relevant again.
Last week, Labour MP Naz Shah had to leave hospital in a wheelchair, sick bag on her lap, to vote on the EU Withdrawall Bill.
The numbers were too tight to call, and the government’s whips office decided not to nod anyone through—an old convention that usually allows ill parliamentarians to simply be present on the estate to be counted as having voted.
An uproar followed in Westminster, and comparisons with This House—whose action is set in in the whips offices—were drawn, but the incident was only the tip of the iceberg.
Below the surface, Parliament isn’t doing well, and things are only going to get worse.
“The behaviour of the government’s whips office this week, and in recent weeks, completely goes against the actual ethos of what a good operation of a whips office consists of,” said Kevin Brennan, a shadow DCMS minister and former government whip.
“Respecting the integrity of your colleagues and being able to have a good relationship between the opposition whips and the government whips is a fundamental part of how parliamentary politics works.”
While the chief whip’s main job is to make sure votes get through Parliament, they must also ensure that MPs are being kept relatively happy, as they might otherwise develop a taste for trouble.
This usually involves a skilful balancing act of the stick and the carrot (and, as Gavin Williamson once quipped, the occasional use of the sharpened carrot)—but chief whip Julian Smith has so far been known for relying more heavily on the former.
“The big problems are inflexibility and overwork”
He is only partly to blame; after all, he cannot change the nature of parliamentary arithmetic.
“The big problems are inflexibility and overwork”, explained Rob Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester.
“Inflexibility not only in terms of MPs less driven to pursue their own agendas, but the simple grim structural fact that every single vote has a…