The dark world of government whips, 'the black book' and why it matters in the Westminster sexual harassment scandal

Stephen crabbDan Kitwood/Getty ImagesConservative MP Stephen Crabb, who has admitted to engaging in ‘sexual chatter’ with a teenage girl hoping to work in his office.
  • Westminster figures suspect party whips have kept allegations against MPs secret to use against them in the future.
  • The whip system fosters the culture of secrecy and unheard allegations, Westminster staff say.
  • Up to 40 Conservative MPs have been accused of inappropriate sexual behaviour in a dossier put together by Westminster researchers. 
  • A spokesperson for Theresa May refused to say when the PM found out about allegations.

LONDON —  British politics has been rocked by a series of allegations relating to MPs and how they behave towards Westminster staff.

Over the weekend a dossier put together by Westminster researchers, and seen by Business Insider, suggested that up to 40 Conservative MPs, including current Cabinet ministers, have been accused of inappropriate sexual behaviour, ranging from allegations of extramarital affairs to sexual harassment.

The claims, if true, could prove highly damaging to the government and Downing Street are under pressure to explain when the prime minister first knew about them. A spokesperson for Theresa May yesterday refused to reveal when the prime minister was first told about the allegations, telling Business Insider: “I don’t have a timetable for that.”

At the centre of the scandal is the role of ‘government whips’ and the suggestion that they may have covered up abuse claims in order to maintain party discipline.

What on earth are whips?

Whips are tasked with enforcing party discipline in the House of Commons. They are MPs appointed by party leaders to make sure MPs in their party vote the right way. They are often referred to as “enforcers.”

However, whips don’t just make sure MPs vote the way their leaders want them to. There is a lot more to it than that.

By voting as instructed, junior MPs with their eyes on future promotions can improve their career prospects by earning the trust and favour of the whips. On the other hand, MPs who defy the whip on key issues or on a constant basis can damage their reputation with the whips and limit their chances of making it to the top of the party.

That’s because whips usually have a close relationship with party leaders and enjoy a lot of influence.

But why do whips matter in these allegations?

This is where the role of whips gets a little bit darker.

It is well-known among those within Westminster that whips devote a lot of time to collecting useful information on MPs that could be used as leverage against them in the future. Useful information can range from anything from comments they have made in parliamentary committees, to very serious accusations made against them.

The ‘black book’

Every whip reportedly possesses a “black book” containing information they have gathered on MPs, which they have been known to refer to when they need to pressure an MP into voting in a certain way.

Ayesha Hazarika, an ex-advisor to former Labour leader Ed Miliband, spoke about the infamous black book during an appearance on Newsnight on Monday evening. Here’s what she said:

“Every whip’s office will have a big black file on MPs — and that will include bad behaviour, including sexual harassment. Sometimes there has been a feeling the whip’s office know there are people doing bad behaviour, whether it’s drinking too much or being inappropriate — but they’re not actually going to do anything in terms of disciplining these people. They will use that information to help them when it comes to leveraging them to vote in a certain way.”

There is a belief among people in Westminster that whips have known about at least some of the allegations made against MPs over the past week but have kept them secret in order to use them as leverage in the future.

So, is this a new phenomenon?

It’s not. Here’s what an MP elected in 1992 told the Guardian about the whips when interviewed in 2014:

“They even kept phoning my wife and saying ‘you should tell him to vote with the government’. It was quite extraordinary. They would try everything — threats and inducements — saying they knew things that they didn’t want to have to make public, implying they would if they had to. With some it was affairs, or things like visits to gay nightclubs. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t true, or was gossip, they still tried it on.”

As Tim Fortescue, who was a government whip between 1970-73, told the BBC in 1995:

“When you are trying to persuade a member to vote the way he didn’t want to vote on a controversial issue — which is part of your job — it is possible to suggest that perhaps it would not be in his interest if people knew something or other -very mildly.”

He added: “And if we could help we would; because if we can get a chap out of trouble, then he’ll do as we ask for ever- more.”

The claims in this dossier will no doubt continue to drip out over the coming days and weeks. Whatever the truth of all the allegations, the role of the government whips and the knowledge and power they hold, are set to be a major part of this scandal.

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