I was having a cup of coffee in the Members Tea Room, when a Whip approached me.
“We are looking for a high quality contribution from a former Treasury Minister in the Budget debate today, and I can think of no one better than you George to do this. The House always listens to what you have to say”
I used to be a Whip, and I can decode their language. What he meant to say was that the rest of the Parliamentary Party were out canvassing for the local elections, and we were short of speakers. If I had nothing better to do than drink coffee, I had better get into the Chamber and make a speech. What I decided to say was my problem, not theirs.
I finished my coffee, picked up the Chancellor’s Budget Statement and went to the Chamber to assemble some thoughts. These with shared with a modest audience a few hours later. The Whips are not folk to mess with.
Not a lot of people know about the Whips; their office is a cross between a Social Services Area Office and a branch of Cosa Nostra. They can attend to your needs if you going through a bad patch; or make life uncomfortable for you if you upset them - in ways that they hint at, but don’t usually explain. A Whip who writes a book about The Office is regarded as a traitor, as they are coy about tactics. One gambit that I used to use was to say “The Leader is thinking of reshuffling the Front Bench, and I know she would be impressed if (or disappointed if)…” depending on the behaviour one was trying to influence.
I was in the Whips Office at a time when the House still sat through the night and Jim Callaghan had a precarious majority, I contacted my flock to warn them that their presence would be required until the session ended, and this would be around breakfast time.
One MP came back to me with a heart-rending story; it was his 25th Wedding Anniversary that day. He and his wife had been planning an elaborate evening together and this unexpected change in Parliamentary business threatened this celebration. My heart melted; I let him off, on condition that, if we really needed him in the small hours of the morning, he would come back when summoned.
As the night wore on, the Government’s majority got smaller and smaller, as the elderly Labour MP’s defied their Whips and went home. At 2am, I rang my colleague. His wife answered the phone. No, he wasn’t there; he had told her he would be at the House for an all-night sitting.
Wild horses won’t drag his name from me. Omerta.