What is a chief whip? Parliamentary role explained

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Sexual misconduct allegations against Chris Pincher, deputy Tory chief whip, led to the fall of Boris Johnson’s government

The Conservative Party whip office has been at the center of the drama that has led to the ouster of Boris Johnson.

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But what does the Chief Whip do – and why are they so important to political parties?

Here’s everything you need to know.

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Current Conservative chief whip Chris Heaton-Harris (left) pictured with Chris Pincher (Image: AFP/Getty Images)

What is a whip?

As the name suggests, whips are MPs who act as enforcers of party political discipline in Westminster.

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Every party has one, and their job is to get their party’s MPs to vote with the party leadership — even if their personal beliefs are at odds with the side of the argument they’re voting for or against.

Whips force different types of Whips depending on the importance of the particular vote.

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Gavin Williamson is a former Conservative Party leader (Image: Getty Images)

The number is derived from the number of times the voice was underlined by the Chief Whip:

  • A single-line whip means an MP does not have to appear to vote, but if they do, they must vote with the party.
  • A two-line whip means an MP must have a good excuse not to vote with their party.
  • A three-line whip means the MP must appear to vote or he could be thrown out of the party, known as “losing the whip”.

Sometimes when there is an issue of conscience – like euthanasia – no stick is enforced, meaning MPs are free to vote as they see fit.

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They must also persuade as many members of their party as possible to turn up for important votes – something that is particularly important when a government has a slim majority or a hung parliament is involved.

Whips get their MPs to stick to the party line, which is especially important when they’re in the ruling party (Picture: Getty Images)

Whips will then act as ‘counters’ when voting – ie counting how many MPs have cast their votes.

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They not only convey the party line to MPs, but also act as a conduit of information in the other direction – letting their leaders know whether or not a particular policy is well received in the party ranks and who their opponents are.

In addition to these roles, the whips must also be in contact with other parties’ whip operations in order to conduct parliamentary business as efficiently as possible.

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Together they will also organize ‘pairings’, ie parties agreeing to exclude MPs from a vote if their opponent’s MPs are unable to appear due to illness or parliamentary matters (e.g. a hearing of a special committee).

What is a chief whip?

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The Chief Whip – also known as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury when in the ruling party – is responsible for the whipping and usually attends cabinet meetings.

They act as the prime minister’s eyes and ears, determining how MPs should vote during the parliamentary timetable.

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But the role is also (unofficially) pastoral, meaning the Chief Whip and his deputies play a role in safeguarding the health and well-being of their MPs.

This was one of the reasons why Chris Pincher’s behavior and the allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against him over a period of several years (claims which he has denied) have been so controversial.

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The position of chief whip is a cabinet role, with serving chief whip Chris Heaton-Harris pictured at the head of the table at a recent meeting of Boris Johnson’s top team (Image: Getty Images)

Usually the chief whip is responsible for a team of about 12 whips.

All whips earn a ministerial salary in addition to their MP salary.

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Who is the Tory Chief Whip?

The current Conservative Party chief whip is Chris Heaton-Harris.

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The MP for Daventry has held the position since February 2022 when his predecessor, Mark Spencer, was promoted to leader of the House of Commons by Boris Johnson.

The latter was famous for keeping his pet tarantula, Cronus, in a glass box on his desk, with apparent intent to intimidate renegade Conservative MPs.

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It is often said that chief whippers “know where the bodies are buried” – ie they know the secrets of their party’s MPs.

They are also in touch with what the party thinks can make them an asset to their leaders – or a nuisance to deal with if they drop out and are relegated to the back benches.

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