One of the significant results of Thursday’s ’s proceedings in the House of Commons is that 21 Conservative MPs had the whip withdrawn for voting against the Government. 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.
This led to criticism of the government from across the House, with reports that even Theresa May had said the MPs affected should be reinstated with the Conservative Whip. The most passionate criticism of the Government, however, came from Labour MP Jess Phillips who called Conservative MPs ‘cowards’ for watching the withdrawals without protest:
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Having the whip withdrawn is one of last resorts that parties have to maintain discipline within the party. Having the whip withdrawn is relatively rare.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:
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.
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 A total of 10 MPs had the whip withdrawn for failing to support the PM over the treaty.
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.
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.