It is very hard for someone to become an MP without the support of a political party. Indeed, in the 2019 General Election only one MP was elected as an independent and that was the Speaker (who by convention is not opposed by the major parties). As such, MPs are beholden on their political parties for their election and therefore the parties, and their whips, are extremely powerful. Two of the punishments available to political parties for MPs who do not ‘toe the line’ are the withdrawal of the whip and deselection. So, what are these two punishments and how often are they deployed?
What is meant by the whip?
The whips are the MPs responsible for enforcing party discipline and making sure MPs act in the way that the party leadership wants. They are led by a chief whip and a number of assistant whips. Having the whip means that you are an active part of the parliamentary party. However, it is possible for the whip to be withdrawn.
What is meant by withdrawal of the whip?
Withdrawing the whip means that you are no longer party of the parliamentary party. This is a decision taken by party leaders. There are normally three reasons why an MP may have the whip withdrawn:
- Due to questions over their conduct.
- Due to publicly questioning their party’s policies.
- Due to rebelling against the party in a parliamentary vote.
Issues of Conduct
The most common reason that MPs have the whip withdrawn is due to their personal conduct. Some recent examples include:
Claudia Webbe – In September 2020 Claudia Webbe had the Labour whip withdrawn after being charged with harassment. In October 2021 she as convicted and given a suspended prison sentence (at appeal this was reduced to a community order). Webbe remains an independent MP with no prospect of having the whip restored.
Christopher Pincher – In June 2022 Chris Pincher had the Conservative whip withdrawn after allegations he had behaved inappropriately at a private members club. Other allegations emerged and it also became apparent that he had been promoted by Boris Johnson despite the PM knowing about some past allegations. It was this that finally promoted the removal of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister.
Margaret Ferrier – In September 2020 Margaret Ferrier had got a train from Scotland to London despite having COVID-19 symptoms. She then tested positive and got a train to Scotland, breaking the law. On October 1st she had the SNP whip withdrawn and in September 2021 she was convicted and given 270 hours of community service.
An MP does not have to be found guilty of an offensive in order to have the whip withdrawn. Indeed, it is something that is often done whilst an investigation is ongoing. For example, during the Conservative Party Conference in 2022 Conor Burns was alleged to have acted inappropriately with a man at a bar. He immediately had the whip withdrawn by Liz Truss.
Publicly questioning party policies
Publicly questioning party policies and the performance of the leader is liable to seeing an MP have the whip withdrawn. Famously, former Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn had the whip withdrawn in October 2020 for not accepting in full the findings of an EHRC investigation into Ant-Semitism in the Labour Party during his leadership.
Some over prominent examples include:
George Galloway (2003): Galloway was expelled from the Labour Party in 2003 after being found guilty of five counts of bringing the party into disrepute. This expulsion came after 36 years of membership. Galloway was an outspoken critic of Tony Blair’s decision (ratified by Parliament) to send troops to Iraq and had backed anti-war campaigners to stand against Labour in the next election.
Ken Livingstone (2000): Ken Livingstone wanted to run as Labour candidate for Mayor of London in 2000. He had previously been Leader of the Greater London Council between 1981 and 1986 and had significant experience of politics in London. However, Labour decided to select Frank Dobson as their candidate. Livingstone declared that he would run independently and as a consequence had the Labour whip withdrawn. Livingstone went on to win the 2000 and 2004 mayoral elections, being made Labour’s official candidate in 2004.
Rebelling against the party in a parliamentary vote
When there is a vote in the House of Commons the whips may insist that MPs vote the way the party wants or face punishment. Should MPs refuse to follow the whip and instead rebel they risk having the whip withdrawn. Some famous examples of this include:
2019 – A group of 21 Conservative MPs had the whip withdrawn for or voting against the Government and thereby allowing the House of Commons to take control of the Commons agenda over Brexit. These included the grandson of Winston Churchill, Nicholas Soames, and the Father of the House, Kenneth Clarke. Soames had only voted against his own party 3 times in 37 years whilst Ken Clarke has served in the Governments of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron, previously holding the titles of Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer.
1992 – Eight members of John Major’s Conservative Party consistently failed to back his call for the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. The Maastricht Treaty created the European Union (formerly EEC). There were 22 rebels, and given the fact that Major only had a majority of 18, they were a significant thorn in the Prime Minister’s side. A total of 10 MPs had the whip withdrawn for failing to support the PM over the treaty. They were known as the ‘Maastricht Rebels’.
In addition, there have been times when MPs have had the whip withdrawn for missing an important vote. Some good examples of this are:
2022 – In July 2022 Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood had the whip withdrawn after missing a confidence vote in Boris Johnson as he was abroad in Moldova.
1993 – Rupert Allason had the whip withdrawn by John Major in 1993 for refusing to vote in a confidence vote in 1993.
What is ‘deselection’?
Having the whip withdrawn is serious but being deselected is even more so. Deselection is the process whereby an MP, or candidate, is removed as the designated candidate for the next local election. This is more serious for an MP than merely the withdrawal of the whip as it is almost certain that they will not be elected at the next election. What is different about selection is that it is not solely in the hands of the party leadership, but is instead in the hands of local constituency associations. This can often lead to conflict between the local and national party organisations. Deselection is often threatened by party leadership, but is rarely enforced. However, there have been some prominent examples:
2022 – Sam Tarry (Labour – Ilford South): Tarry became the first Labour MP to be deselected since 2010 after losing a vote by 499 to 361 in his local constituency. Tarry, a strong supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, had been at odds with Keir Starmer for some time and had been one of the Labour MPs to defy a ban on attending picket lines during the national rail strikes.
2010 – Anne Moffat (Labour – East Lothian): In 2008 a vote of no confidence was passed in Moffat by the local Labour Party. This was based on a number of factors including a lack of engagement with constituency matters within the House of Commons. This angered the national party, but their pressure made no difference. In 2010 she was deselected by 130 votes to 50 and she subsequently did not stand in the election in May 2010.
2008 – Frank Cook (Labour – Stockton North): Cook was deselected by his local constituency association in 2008. He subsequently stood as an independent at the 2010 General Election but won just 1,577 votes.
2019 – Philip Hammond: Undoubtedly the biggest name ever to be deselected by his party, Hammond was deselected by his local Runnymede and Weybridge constituency association following his decision to be one of the 21 MPs who voted against Boris Johnson in order to prevent a Hard Brexit.
2019 – Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen, Sarah Wollaston and Nick Boles: These four were never deselected as Conservative MPs. However, all were either pro-remain or vehemently opposed to a Hard Brexit. All were under pressure from their local associations and may well have faced deselection. Eventually, perhaps knowing their future fate, all four left the Conservative Party whilst still sitting MPs.
How significant are the withdrawal of the whip and deselection?
Both the withdrawal of the whip and deselection are significant actions, although the withdrawal of the whip is much more common. The prospect of having the whip withdrawn may keep MPs from rebelling during parliamentary votes and therefore is a useful tool for party leaders in managing the party. However, deselection is primarily in the hands of local party members, and it is one of the important ways that it is ensured that MPs are accountable to their local party and not just the national one. Whilst deselection is rare, it is a powerful tool to keep local accountability.
The whip is a way for the parliamentary party to manage its MPs, whilst deselection is an important mechanism through which to keep MPs and candidates accountable to their local parties.
Whip – The term for one an MP is the formal member of the parliamentary party. The individuals known as whips enforce discipline within the party.
Withdrawal of the Whip – When an MP is no longer allowed to represent a party in Parliament.
Toe the Party Line – The term given in politics for when an MP does what their party expects of them.
Deselection – When an MP is prevented from representing a political party at the next General Election.
Rebellion – When an MP does not vote the way that their party wants them to.
Constituency Association – The local party organisation for a political party.
The ‘Whip’ is the term given for the right to sit in a political party in Parliament. Sitting with a political party means that you can use their often significant resources. However, it also means that MPs are expected to ‘toe the party line’ and vote with the party, particularly on their key policy issues.
Having the whip withdrawn is one of last resorts that parties have to maintain discipline within the party. Having the whip withdrawn is relatively rare. Some of the famous examples of this are:
The Maastricht Rebels (1992): Eight members of John Major’s Conservative Party consistently failed to back his call for the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. The Maastricht Treaty created the European Union (formerly EEC). There were 22 rebels, and given the fact that Major only had a majority of 18, they were a significant thorn in the Prime Minister’s side. A total of 10 MPs had the whip withdrawn for failing to support the PM over the treaty.
Alongside having the whip withdrawn these MPs are now likely to be deselected – meaning they cannot stand as Conservative MPs in the next election. This is a significant punishment. It is extremely rare for MPs to be elected to the House of Commons without the support of a major party. In fact, the only MP currently elected as an Independent in Sylvia Hermon, MP for North Down.
The current situation has led to cries of Government hypocrisy. For example, the Prime Minister voted against Theresa May’s deal on two occasions whilst Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, voted against Theresa May’s deal on all three occasions.
The impact of deselection is hard to tell. Many local Conservative Associations seem content with the decision. For example, Philip Hammond’s Runnymead and Weybridge association have said deselection is the right decision. However, parties have to carefully balance the views of their grassroots members with those of the electorate who will decide their fate at the next election. Whilst the move to the right may please many traditional Tory voters and therefore fend of the challenge from the Brexit Party, it may lead to disillusionment with those who believe a carefully managed Brexit is essential and are willing to accept further extensions to that end. A General Election will arrive soon, that much is for certain. With it will come a chance to test the direction the decisions the Prime Minister has made. It is important to note that current polls see the Conservatives clearly in the lead. The current estimate from Electoral Calculus is that an election would result in a Conservative Majority of 50.