Many constituents have, at some point, mislaid their mobile phone. Often it will turn up again, but occasionally they disappear for ever, having been used to make expensive calls to premium rate lines and then pilfered for whatever raw materials they contain.
Members of Parliament are not immune from this hazard. We try to look after our Blackberries, but they occasionally go astray and you may come across one. They convey messages from the Whips to members of their parties and the following will help you to decode the signals they send out.
“There are speaking opportunities on Thursday.” This means that the Government have chosen a topic for a debate on which no one wants to speak. This happens from time to time, for example when there is a football match on. This is a signal from the whips that they are desperate for speakers.
“The vote scheduled for 8pm will now take place at 9pm” This means that one of the more verbose colleagues has caught Mr Speaker’s eye and is on his feet, oblivious of the deal done through the usual channels.
“The vote scheduled for 10pm has been cancelled” This means that the government has realised it was likely to lose, has given in to the opposition and conceded the relevant amendment.
“The Sun is doing a survey of MP’s. You are advised not to take part.” This means that one of the colleagues has confessed to smoking dope at University and another colleague has condemned him. The press are having a field day and the Whips are trying to cut off the oxygen.
“Please ring the Chief Whip at once” This is probably bad news. This message has not gone out to all the colleagues – only to you. Before you ring him, check today’s tabloids to see if you feature in any of them. Ring home to see if there is a media scrum outside. Make sure you didn’t miss the vote last night.
If you are an optimist, you might think he is about to offer you a job on the Front Bench. Or he wants you to speak in his constituency.
“There is a new line to take on foreign policy” This means the Party’s policy has changed suddenly, to the dismay of those who had taken the trouble to find out what it was, and had been staunchly defending it.
“Division. Free Vote” Panic. When you get to the lobby, there will be no guidance from the Whips about how to vote. You have eight minutes in which to find someone who will summarise the issue fairly, without trying to get you to follow him into his own particular disposition.
“A very Happy Christmas to you all” This requires no explanation. The Whips are, contrary to popular belief, human, and capable of expressing seasonal good wishes.
And so am I.