Parliament, whips and rebel MPs : Political parties and the British Constitution
A flurry of colourful language is nothing unusual in either the House of Commons or the tabloid press. However, it is still striking to see Dominic Grieve, a poised and dignified former Attorney General, described as the “Rebel Commander”, whilst the Conservative Chief Whip is dubbed “the Enforcer”. The terms seem more to belong to an action film than the world of Politics. What is going on, and what does it have to do with the British Constitution?
In a nutshell, Dominic Grieve QC MP led a group of Conservative MPs who voted against the Government on the EU Withdrawal Bill, resulting in an embarrassing defeat for the Prime Minister. He and his allies wanted to an amendment which would guarantee an opportunity for Parliament to vote on the final Brexit deal. There are political and legal arguments for and against this stance, but there are voices within the Tory party and elsewhere howling that this is irrelevant. In the eyes of MPs like Nadine Dorries, Mr Grieve and his followers are “treacherous” and should be kicked out of the Conservative fold. Following this logic, the rebel MPs should have smothered their conscience and voted as the party leadership directed, regardless of their personal opinions. Does this make sense from a constitutional perspective?
The UK Parliament operates as a representative democracy, with a number of political parties. Although there have been episodes in history which have bucked the trend, generally speaking there have been two parties in a dominant position, which form the basis of the Government and Opposition. This is the case at present with the Conservative and Labour parties. MPs are elected to the House of Commons and are usually allied with a political party, and in the overwhelming majority of cases, MPs stand at elections as candidates for a particular party.
Nevertheless, it is vital to appreciate that if Colin Carrot stands as the candidate for the Veggie Party and wins the seat of Turnipshire East, Colin personally is the representative for Turnipshire East, and if Colin is kicked out of the Veggie Party, or chooses to leave of his own free will, he will still be the MP for Turnipshire East. The Veggie Party may be stewing with rage, but they can’t do anything about this. Equally, if Colin dies and suddenly ends up as coleslaw, the Veggies can’t just pick someone else from their party to take his place, and send Peter Potato off to Parliament. There will have to be a bye-election (an election for a Parliamentary seat which becomes vacant between General Elections) and the people of Turnipshire will have the opportunity to choose their new representative. Although they might opt for Peter Potato, they are equally free to go for Lucy Lemon from the Fruit Party.
This kind of model is very different from what is seen is Constitutions which adopt proportional representation, where political parties receive a percentage of parliamentary representatives according to number of votes they have won. In many such countries, members of Parliament are prevented from changing parties between elections, in order to avoid having the democratic will of the people thwarted. However, in the UK, voters are not choosing a party, but a person (even though in many cases they are choosing that person because they are the representative for their preferred party).
In practical terms though, the national Government can only operate effectively if the Prime Minister can get legislation through Parliament in order to implement the policies of the Executive. Equally, the Opposition can only be effective and coherent if it is presenting a consistent and united front. Therefore, the parties have a system of “whips”, members of Parliament appointed by each party to organise that party members vote in accordance with party policy. Critically important votes are designated “three line whips” and individuals who fail to attend or vote against their party in such cases may well have the whip withdrawn, which effectively translates to being expelled from the party. Likewise, on some occasions parties will decide not to use the whip system for a particular vote, if it is deemed to be a matter related more to personal ethics and judgement than party politics. Furthermore, the whip system does exist in the House of Lords, but it is softer than in the Commons, and the Upper House is generally less rigidly political.
All of this boils down to a conclusion that if an individual is elected as a MP for a particular political party, he or she should vote along party lines unless there is a very sound reason not to do so. If MPs ignored the whips on a whim, or refused to cooperate every time they mildly disagreed, our whole system of government would collapse. However, it is a long held, and for some almost sacred principle, that an MP should ultimately do what they perceive to be for the good of the nation and his/her constituents. If they truly believe that a particular policy is putting the collective interest of the UK in jeopardy, then they have a duty to oppose it. Edmund Burke famously wrote to the electors of Bristol telling them that he had a duty to do what his reason and judgement told him was right, not what other people might want. His analysis has been widely adopted and accepted by supporters of representative democracy ever since.
Whatever conclusions people might reach about the EU Withdrawal Bill, there is no reason to doubt that Dominic Grieve and his supporters were voting according to their conscience on a matter which has profound and far reaching implications for the UK. In constitutional terms, they were acting as members of the legislature keeping a check on executive power, and restraining the Government from behaving in a way they saw as contrary to the national interest. To describe MPs as “traitors” for carrying out their constitutional duty is neither just nor rational. Furthermore, it should be noted that Dominic Grieve has received vitriolic abuse and death threats for his trouble, something which nobody in his position could take lightly after the tragic murder of Jo Cox MP.
So often there are complaints that politicians lack integrity, it would be absurd not to applaud MPs doing what they believe to be right, even though it means putting their personal safety and political future in jeopardy. The freedom of our elected representatives to fulfil their constitutional role is critical, and perhaps we can do no better than close with the words of Edmund Burke, as he declined a request to vote against his reason and principles, explaining what he felt an MP should do:
“his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Whether or not they believe in Providence as Burke did, it is to be hoped that all of our representatives believe in ethical obligations (religious or otherwise) which transcend party politics.
Brexit’s Rebel Commander v The Enforcer (Daily Mail 17/12/2017)
Tory Rebel not concerned about “knives being out” for him (BBC News 14/12/2017)
Nadine Dorries Rages at “Treacherous” Tory MPs after Brexit rebellion (Huff Post 13/12/2017)
Tory MP who led Brexit rebellion against Theresa May receives death threats (The Independent 13/12/2017)
The role of an MP is to be a representative, not a delegate (C Bryant, The New Statesman, 7/12/2015)
Edmund Burke, Speech to the Electors of Bristol (3/11/1774)
Current State of the Parties (UK Parliament)
Whigs and Tories (UK Parliament)
Whips (UK Parliament)