You can be quite sure the Parliamentary Whips Office will be working overtime this weekend trying to ensure they have the necessary votes in place before the Commons showdown on press regulation scheduled for Monday. David Cameron abruptly withdrew from the all-party talks on Thursday and threw down the gauntlet by calling for his non-statutory proposals to be put to the House surprising not only Ed Miliband and the Labour Party, but more importantly his coalition partner, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.
The issue has been dragging on for what seems an inordinately long time with the prospect of other parliamentary legislation being hijacked with amendments to give effect to Lord Leveson’s recommendations. David Cameron is proposing a Royal Charter which would seek to regulate the press but without enshrining it in statute. Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg are of the opinion that the body that regulates the press needs to be free from press interference and, crucially, that the Royal Charter should have a statutory underpinning.
If all the Conservatives vote together, they will have 303 votes whereas if all the Labour and Liberal Democrats vote together, they will have 313 votes, leaving the various nationalist parties holding the balance. This is where the Whips, with responsibility for party discipline, will come into their own: persuading, cajoling, threatening, flattering and generally doing whatever it takes to ensure they have the requisite votes to win the motion.
The Whips Office and its activities, usually tucked away in the dark recesses and secluded corners where nobody can hear a recalcitrant MP scream, have tended to have had the spotlight shone firmly in their direction and not always for the right reasons. Plebgate, which led to the resignation (rightly or wrongly) of the Government Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, brought the office onto the front pages of all the newspapers and dragged the long-serving and honourably decent Deputy Chief Whip, John Randall into the scandal after one of his constituents claimed to have witnessed the altercation outside the gates of Downing Street. We have seen Kevin Spacey reprise the role of the scheming and conniving Chief Whip Francis Urquhart, so memorably portrayed by the late Sir Ian Richardson (although in crossing the Atlantic he has become Francis Underwood). Those with longer memories will remember Gyles Brandreth’s diaries of his time as an MP during John Major’s Government; the title Breaking the Code alluded to what many considered his treachery in laying bare the day-to-day activities of his role in the Whips Office during that tumultuous Parliament.
Phil Daniels and Vincent Franklin. Photo by Johan Persson
However, whilst the whips may lament their plight over the next few days, they can reflect that the current Parliament has been mercifully free from such close-run votes. For their counterparts nearly forty years ago, it was a very different story and one that is told with great aplomb in James Graham’s play This House, currently playing at the National Theatre. The story revolves around the 1974-79 hung Parliament when Harold Wilson returned to Downing Street as Prime Minister at the helm of a Government in October, with a slender majority of three. In essence, every time the Labour Government wanted to steer a piece of legislation through the House of Commons, it wasn’t necessarily enough to rely on their own MPs supporting it (never a given), especially when one considers how many of them were aged and infirm; they needed to secure the support of the Liberal MPs, Scottish Nationalists, Welsh Nationalists, Irish MPs and Independents. Of course, these so-called “odds and sods” had no altruistic inclination to prop up a minority Government and so, with the Tories waiting with bated breath for a suitable opportunity to defeat the Government and call a Vote of No Confidence, the Labour whips had to constantly calculate and recalculate whether they had the necessary votes to continue to govern Britain. The point is aptly made by the Conservative Opposition Deputy Chief Whip when he warns his opposite number “A minority government? No one with any sense or gumption gives you more than a matter of weeks. You’re gonna fall, and fast, and hard. So start finding things to land on. Now.”
This House opened in the Cottesloe Theatre last year to ecstatic reviews and has now migrated to the Olivier Theatre, making the transition skilfully thanks to Rae Smith’s design with some audience members taking their seats on-stage on the famous green benches and with the clock face of Big Ben looming over the proceedings. The action largely alternates between the Labour and Conservative Whip’s Offices where we see politics stripped bare with intrigue, ambition, cunning and compromise interspersed with glimpses of empathy, decency and nobility on both sides.
The direction and acting is first-rate from a cast that includes Eric Daniels as Labour Chief Whip Bob Mellish. One of the reasons the play works so well and is such an enjoyable theatrical experience is the crisp dialogue and badinage both inter and intra-party with the central axis interplayed between opposing Deputy Chief Whips: Charles Edwards as the smooth suave and impeccably attired James Weatherill and Reece Dinsdale as the bluff, plain-speaking Yorkshireman Walter Harrison with a talent for knowing about developments before anyone else –including the Chief Whip. It is their friendship, mutual respect and professional rivalry that gives us the best insight into the compromise and compassion necessary in politics, whichever the era, and gives the play many of its funniest lines.
When politicians refer to the ethereal ‘good old days’, they probably won’t be thinking back to the Parliament that ushered in the advent of Margaret Thatcher; however, it does make for a good old night out at the theatre.