Now think of the Government Pairing Whip -with the majority reduced to one.
I’ve done that job too, and much worse than Accommodation Whip (described in last weeks column) who, at least has a relatively quiet time between reshuffles and the immediate aftermath of an election.
For the Pairing whip there is no relief: you are responsible for the Government’s majority in votes throughout the day, and every day you are besieged with requests from colleagues to be ‘slipped’ from votes in order to deal with essential government business, attend events in their constituencies, parental duties, I even remember one current very senior whip asking me to be allowed to go home because his dog had just died.
Invariably the number of requests vastly exceeded my capacity to grant them, and still to retain a working majority present at Westminster.
Under the coalition government we had a paper majority of nearly 80, but one quickly discovered that some colleagues could not be relied on at all, and this had to be factored into my daily headcount.
I could always get some additional flexibility by accommodating ministerial business overseas through maintaining a good working relationship with my Labour opposite number, we would ‘pair’ the absent ministers with Labour absentees. It is always harder for the Opposition to keep its members at Westminster: if you are likely to lose votes, does it really matter if you lose by one more.
The real difficulty was the prospect of rebellions. These were frequent because of the very nature of the coalition. A significant minority of Tories were never reconciled to it and opposed many of what they considered its Liberal Democrat tendencies.
The moment there was a whiff of a rebellion, Labour -to maximise the pressure- would withdraw the pairing, and I would hit the phones to get ministers back from abroad and colleagues from wherever else they’d got to. Most were very understanding. William Hague was a real gentleman about it. Others were less so. There were even some cads whose business always seemed to count for more that the Government’s majority.
The problem was that I had to act at the first sign of trouble: if you have to get ministers back from Asia, Africa, and the Americas you cannot afford to wait. 48 hours or so later, with the problem vote imminent, the whipping operation having been in overdrive, many of the rebels had been ‘burnt-off’, but I couldn’t have known that at the early stages of the operation. Consequently, one could end up winning embarrassingly easily, but having put one’s colleagues to enormous trouble.
In reality, the current pairing whip will have a much easier ride. It was my very ability to be flexible that made for the work and the agonising choices. With a majority of only one, the fellow will not be able to let anyone out, what is more, colleagues will understand this, so they probably won’t ask.
Gavin Barwell, lately chief of staff at 10 Downing Street, tells a story of overhearing me on the phone to an absent colleague with an important vote approaching,
“yes, I know your wife has just died…but you’re okay aren’t you”
I deny it. He is suffering from false memory syndrome