Until recently, MP’s found it hazardous to buy a ticket for the theatre or opera in London during the week. A vote on a 3 Line Whip at 10pm could lead to some nugatory expenditure. I have missed the last act of more plays than I care to remember, getting on my bicycle to vote before Inspector Knacker could reveal who murdered the duchess with a corkscrew in the pantry. And I have had to leave Covent Garden many times before the fat lady sang. There were some plusses to go with the minuses – a perfect alibi to leave the banquet in the City after a good meal, but before the Worshipful Master got into his lengthy review of the past year and raised his glass in a toast to the Renter Warden, who was going to succeed him.
When we debated whether to bring forward to 7pm the time of the last vote, I voted against change. Bringing forward by three hours the time of the last vote, while freeing up time for recreation, also brought forward the time when the House began its sitting. This displaced the time earlier in the day for attending to all the other things an MP has to do – meetings, telephone calls, correspondence, interviews, writing articles, emails etc. But change was introduced, so I now do all this between 7pm and 10pm, and leave the Palace at roughly the same time as before.
However, the change has enabled me to see a play and a film in the past fortnight. Casino Royale, and Whipping it Up. Readers will have heard of and probably seen the former; but not the latter. Casino Royale confirms the view of anyone who has been a spending Minister, namely that the Treasury dictates policy. Whipping it Up confirms the view of the Treasury that the Government Whips Office is where decisions are really taken.
Whipping it Up is showing in a theatre above a pub in Shepherds Bush Green. It may transfer to the West End and is worth seeing. It is set in the Conservative Party Whips office just after the next General Election, which David Cameron has won with a majority of three. It is authentic – I saw my picture on the wall, with all my colleagues - but there seem to be more bottles of champagne lying around than I recall in my time as a Whip. And no Tory Chief Whip would dine at 6pm.
The Whips Office is exposed as a cross between Social Services and Cosa Nostra. It contains skills in anger management, debt counselling, relationship breakdown, alcohol addiction and career advice from the former; the latter equips it with more sinister qualities of blackmail, discipline control and information extraction, bound together with a vow of secrecy and mutual loyalty. I fear that the Whips may go and see Casino Royale; if a chair appears in the Whips office with the cane seat removed, you will know that they have borrowed a new instrument of persuasion.
Whatever the merits of the change in sitting hours, it has led to the demise of the story of the MP who, returning home in the early hours of the morning after three all night sittings, found a note from his wife. “The day before yesterday, you came home yesterday; yesterday, you came home to-day; if, to-day, you come home tomorrow, you will find I left yesterday.”