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Chief Whip: The Role, History and Black Arts of Parliamentary Whipping by Tim Renton

3 October 2007

And now that it’s the Tories’ turn for their party conference, here’s a memoir from someone who’s had firsthand experience herding cats…or rather, Conservative MPs.

Chief Whip: The Role, History and Black Arts of Parliamentary Whipping by Tim Renton

In political terms, a whip is an elected member of a political party who is responsible for keeping party discipline, ensuring that politicians vote in accordance with the dictates of the senior members of their political party. The whipping system generally does its best to make sure that a Government has enough votes to get its legislation passed — not always an easy task for the handful of whips responsible for keeping their often restive colleagues under control. Whips need to be able to soothe and placate, bully and scold, tempt and threaten, and always keep abreast of fast-changing situations. And because whipping is by its very nature a secretive, clandestine task, not much is known about the thankless and yet crucial position of the person who is responsible for having the ‘whip-hand’, as it were, of his or her political party.

Tim Renton was Chief Whip during the final days of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership (I certainly don’t envy him that position), and his book delves into the complicated history of whips and whipping in British politics. There are pros and cons to having an ‘insider’ write a book about politics, particularly when the insider happens to be writing about a position with which he or she is intimately familiar. The temptation to write a tell-all book or to bore the readers with unrelated anecdotes is almost as bad as the temptation to talk around the subject without actually explaining or clarifying anything. Renton’s book, I think, does an excellent job of writing an entertaining, engaging, and (as far as I can tell) erudite book about the history of the office of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury: the actual title given to the Chief Whip, which allows him or her to sit in Cabinet. There are a number of well-crafted pen-portraits of specific Chief Whips from years past — I particularly enjoyed his section on Edward Heath, who by all accounts was a superb Chief Whip (1955-1959) but who found that the very qualities that made him a good whip didn’t necessarily make him a good Prime Minister. Quite the contrary, in fact.

All in all, Chief Whip helps to clarify a rather shadowy aspect of the inner workings of governments, and does so in a light (if occasionally gossipy) way that makes it a fast and amusing read. The term ‘black arts’ in the title isn’t exactly an exaggeration, either — as Renton explains, there are times when a Chief Whip might well have to resort to a bit of skulduggery when the situation calls for it. But those times deserve to be read about rather than explained by yours truly.

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