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No Uncertain Terms: Why a ‘Three-Line Whip’ Means Business


Houses of Parliament in London. British lawmakers will vote on Wednesday on whether to start the talks to leave the European Union. Credit Isabel Infantes/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

LONDON — When British lawmakers vote on Wednesday on whether to allow the government to begin talks on leaving the European Union, a number of opposition Labour deputies face a tricky choice: Should they follow their beliefs or their party line? That’s because the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, declared a “three-line whip,” a clear order to vote as instructed by the leadership and permit Prime Minister Theresa May to start the negotiations on British withdrawal. Two members of Mr. Corbyn’s shadow ministerial team in Parliament have so far resigned those jobs, saying that they intend to defy the instruction, and other lawmakers are expected to follow.

What is this “whip,” and how did the term originate?

Like most of what happens in the British Parliament, there is history here. The term derives from hunting terminology; a “whipper in” being a huntsman’s assistant who prevents hounds from straying, using a whip to drive them back to the pack. Exactly when the word was first used in this context is unclear, though it was not recently. According to the House of Commons library, the Oxford Dictionary first recorded use of the term “whipper in” in the annual Register of 1772, but “The House of Commons in the 18th Century,” by P. D. G. Thomas, cites two earlier references, one in 1769, another in 1742.

Who or what is the chief whip?

The job of leader of the whips, known as the chief whip, seems to have been formalized in the early 19th century. In more recent times the post became one of power and patronage. In the British forerunner of the Netflix series “House of Cards” (based on the book by Michael Dobbs), the sinister and Machiavellian antihero Francis Urquhart starts out as chief whip. In real life, some senior whips also have been scary. The former Labour foreign secretary Jack Straw has told of his first encounter, as a young lawmaker, with the party’s deputy chief whip, Walter Harrison, who pushed him against a wall and grabbed him by the testicles. When Mr. Straw managed to ask what he had done wrong, the answer was nothing, though he said Mr. Harrison added: “But think what I’d do if you crossed me.”


The Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn declared a “three-line whip,” an order for the Labour lawmakers to vote as instructed by the leadership and allow Prime Minister Theresa May to start the withdrawal talks. Credit Andy Buchanan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

What do whips do?

The main job of the chief whip is to get the government’s legislation through Parliament, and that of the opposition chief whip is to oppose it. They are supported by a deputy and a small group of junior whips. There are teams in the elected House of Commons and the unelected second chamber, the House of Lords. Their duties include keeping lawmakers up-to-date on coming votes, and ensuring that they attend debates and vote in line with their party’s policies. Chief whips also communicate the views of lawmakers to the party leadership, and advise leaders on whom to promote.

What is a three-line whip?

The whip is a document circulated regularly to lawmakers listing coming business and expectations on how they should vote. The importance of the vote is reflected in the number of times it is underlined, hence the phrase “three-line whip,” which indicates a measure that must be supported. Defying one of these generally means that a government minister, or opposition shadow minister, will resign (or be dismissed) from that position.

How powerful are the whips and how do they enforce their will?

The whips can help determine whether or not a lawmaker is promoted but are probably no longer as powerful, or as ruthless, as they once were. The Conservative chief whip reputedly once kept a “black book” recording lawmakers’ misdemeanors and personal weaknesses, which could be used to coerce them back into line.

According to one former Labour lawmaker, Joe Ashton, during the 1970s, when the Labour government needed every vote to get legislation through, one whip was routinely dispatched at voting time to check who was in the lavatories, peering over the top of the door when necessary.

The Whips Office, Mr. Ashton added, “killed six people” — some were forced to attend Parliament to vote hours after surgery, some postponed important operations. Despite suffering a severe heart attack, one lawmaker was taken to the House in an ambulance, where the whips went to count his vote, Mr. Ashton recalled. He added that when one whip asked “how do we know that he is alive?” his counterpart for the opposition leaned forward and “turned the knob on the heart machine.” When the green light went around, he then declared the sick lawmaker to have cast a crucial vote, adding “‘There, you’ve lost.’”

Source: NYT > World

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