Chief Whip

The Chief Whip is a political office in some legislatures whose task is to administer the whipping system that tries to ensure that members of the party attend and vote as the party leadership desires.

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In British politics, the Chief Whip of the governing party in the House of Commons is usually also appointed as Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, a Cabinet position. The Government Chief Whip has an official residence at 12 Downing Street. However, the Chief Whip's office is currently located at 9 Downing Street.[1]

The Chief Whip can wield great power over their party's MPs, including cabinet ministers, being seen to speak at all times with the voice of the Prime Minister. Margaret Thatcher was famed for using her Chief Whip as a "cabinet enforcer".

The role of Chief Whip is regarded as secretive, as the Whip is concerned with the discipline of their own party's Members of Parliament and never appears on television or radio in their capacity as whip. An exception occurred on 1 April 2019 when Julian Smith chose to criticize his own government and Prime Minister.[2]

Another exception was Andrew Mitchell, the Government Chief Whip in 2012, who appeared on television to deny remarks made about himself.

Whips in the House of Commons do not, by convention, speak in debates.

The Government Chief Whip is assisted by the Deputy Chief Whip, other whips, and assistant whips. In order to give them a salary for what is, in essence, a party office, the government whips are appointed to positions in HM Treasury and in the Royal Household under the Lord Steward of the Household. The whips are not fully active in either of these departments, though do undertake a number of responsibilities. The Deputy Chief Whip is Treasurer of HM Household, the next two whips are Comptroller of HM Household and Vice-Chamberlain of HM Household, and the remaining whips are Lords Commissioners of the Treasury. Assistant whips, and whips of opposition parties, generally do not receive such appointments.

Outside the government, the Official Opposition Chief Whip in the Commons, like the Leader of the Opposition, receives a stipend in addition to their parliamentary salary, because their additional responsibilities will make them unable to hold down another job.

The whips, although superficially dictatorial, act as communicators between backbenchers and the party leadership. Ultimately if backbenchers are unhappy with the leadership's position they can threaten to revolt during a vote and force the leadership to compromise.

While the whip was formally introduced to British politics by the Irish Parliamentary Party under Charles Stewart Parnell in the 1880s, in 1846 the Duke of Wellington advised the new Conservative Party leader Lord Stanley to ensure that his "whippers-in" were personally loyal.

The whip as a party line

In the UK Parliament the importance of a vote is indicated by underlining of items on the "whip", which is the name of the letter the Chief Whip sends to all the MPs in their party at the start of the week. This letter informs them of the schedule for the days ahead, and includes the sentence, "Your attendance is absolutely essential" next to each debate in which there will be a vote. This sentence is underlined once, twice or three times depending on the consequences that will be suffered if they do not turn up, hence the origin of the terms one-line whip, two-line whip and three-line whip. The actual vote they are to make is communicated to them in the chamber by hand signals during the division when the time comes (usually after the division bell has been rung). Even though it is more important to the result of any division than the debate, neither these instructions, which are visible to everyone in the chamber, nor the "whip" letter at the start of the week, are recorded in Hansard, as they are considered a matter internal to the political party; indeed, the system exists because any explicit direction to an MP as to how they should vote would be a breach of parliamentary privilege.

The consequences of defying the party whip depend on the circumstances, and are usually negotiated with the party whip in advance. The party whip's job is to ensure the outcome of the vote, so the situation is different and more important for a party which holds the majority, because if their members obey the whip they can always win.

If the party has a large Commons majority, it can make allowances for MPs who are away on important business, or whose political circumstances require them to take a particular issue very seriously. Theoretically at least, expulsion from the party is an automatic consequence of defying a three-line whip.

Other such offences include betraying party loyalties. An example of this during John Major's government was when nine Conservative MPs had the whip removed after voting against the government on its stance on the Maastricht Treaty, becoming known as Eurosceptics. In practice they remained Conservative MPs supporting the government on other issues. Sir Bill Cash, John Redwood and Iain Duncan Smith are still Conservative MPs. This was also the only time when MPs who were being whipped were cooperating with the opposite side's whips. In most cases the 'pairing' system enables one from each side to cancel out the other's vote if absent simultaneously. Yet despite the whip, individuals are entitled to vote according to their own beliefs, particularly when there is a "free vote" on a matter of conscience.[lower-alpha 1] There are some cases in which the whip is removed because an issue is a matter of conscience. These include adoption, religion and equal opportunities. The impact of a whip being imposed on a matter of conscience can be damaging for a party leader. One such case was that of Iain Duncan Smith, who imposed a three-line whip against the adoption of children by unmarried couples (which at the time meant gay couples could never adopt). Several Conservative MPs voted against the official party line, and Smith's authority was weakened.

Whips can often be brutal to backbenchers to secure their vote, and will resort to a mixture of promises, cajoling and persuading to force an unpopular vote. A whip should know major figures in an MP's local constituency party and the MP's agent. There have been cases where sick MPs were wheeled into the House from far afield to vote for the government on a crucial vote. Former MP Joe Ashton recalled a case from the dying days of James Callaghan's government:

"I remember the famous case of Leslie Spriggs, the then-Member for St. Helens. We had a tied vote and he was brought to the House in an ambulance having suffered a severe heart attack. The two Whips went out to look in the ambulance and there was Leslie Spriggs laid there as though he was dead. I believe that John Stradling Thomas said to Joe Harper, 'How do we know that he is alive?' So he leaned forward, turned the knob on the heart machine, the green light went around, and he said, 'There, you've lost—it's 311.' That is an absolutely true story. It is the sort of nonsense that used to happen. No one believes it, but it is true."[3]

For a minister, the consequences of defying the party whip are absolute: they are dismissed from their job immediately if they have not already resigned, and return to being a backbencher. Sometimes their votes in Parliament are called the "payroll vote", because they can be taken for granted. The consequences for a back-bencher can include the lack of future promotion to a government post, a reduction of party campaigning effort in his or her constituency during the next election, deselection by his or her local party activists, or, in extreme circumstances, "withdrawal of the whip" and expulsion from the party.

Lists of government whips

As of 28 July 2019, the Conservative government whips in the Commons are:[4]

A similar arrangement exists for whips in the House of Lords. The Government Chief Whip is usually appointed Captain of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms, while the Deputy Chief Whip is usually appointed Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard. Other whips, who are fewer in number due to the decreased importance of party discipline in the Lords, are appointed as Lords in Waiting if men and Baronesses in Waiting if women. As well as their duties as whips, Lords whips speak in the chamber (unlike Commons whips) to support departmental ministers or act as a spokesperson for government departments with no minister in the Lords. The current Lords whips are:[4]

Lists of chief whips by party

Principal Private Secretary to the Chief Whip

The Government Chief Whip's office is headed by a Principal Private Secretary, who also acts as a go-between for ministers and the opposition to keep parliamentary business moving. The first office-holder, Charles Harris, was appointed privately in 1919 to assist Lord Edmund Talbot, the Conservative chief whip. He was retained by successive Conservative chief whips on a private basis, serving as their secretary during periods when the party was in government (1922–23, 1924–29 and 1935 onwards) until 1939, when the post formally became part of the civil service (as Assistant to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury) and Harris was appointed into it, with a salary of £850.[5] He retired in 1961 and was succeeded by Freddie Warren; all subsequent appointees have been permanent civil servants.

  • 1939–1961: Sir Charles Harris, KBE[5]
  • 1961–1978: Sir Freddie Warren, CBE[6]
  • 1978–2000: Sir Murdo Maclean
  • 2000–present: Sir Roy Stone

Other jurisdictions

There are also Chief Whips or similar positions in:


In India, the concept of the whip was inherited from colonial British rule. Every major political party appoints a whip who is responsible for the party's discipline and behaviour on the floor of the house. Usually, he/she directs the party members to stick to the party's stand on certain issues and directs them to vote as per the direction of senior party members.[7][8] However, there are some cases such as Indian presidential election where no whip can be issued directing Member of Parliament or Member of Legislative Assembly on whom to vote.[9]

In fiction

British Chief Whips have appeared in fiction such as House of Cards, Yes Minister, The Thick of It and The New Statesman.

See also


  1. example of this can be a vote to bring back Hanging as a Death Penalty.


  1. Womack, Sarah (7 September 2001). "Campbell ousts the Chief Whip". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 28 April 2010.
  2. Cappuro, Daniel (1 April 2019). "Julian Smith: The beleaguered Chief Whip with a long record of mistakes". The Telegraph. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  3. "Hansard 14 July 1997, Column 507, Paragraph 20".
  4. "Ministers". Retrieved 31 July 2019.
  5. David Butler, "Harris, Sir Charles Joseph William", The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed., Oxford University Press, September 2004). Retrieved 20 November 2019.
  6. His entry in Who Was Who states that he was "Secretary to the Government Chief Whip" between 1958 and 1979, but Sir Charles Harris did not retire until 1961 and The Times reported only in that year that Warren succeeded him as Secretary ("Presentation to Sir Charles Harris", The Times, 21 July 1961, p. 8; "Chief Whip Appoints New Secretary", The Times, 2 August 1961, p. 7). His obituary in The Times gives 1961 to 1978 ("Sir Alfred Warren." The Times, 15 May 1990, p. 14.).
  7. "Derek O'Brien is TMC's Chief Whip in Rajya Sabha". Outlook India. 2 August 2012. Archived from the original on 14 October 2013. Retrieved 3 August 2012.
  8. "leaders and chief whips of recognised parties and groups in parliament (facilities) act, 1998" (PDF). Rajya Sabha Secretariat. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 August 2012. Retrieved 3 August 2012.
  9. "Issuing whips to MPs, MLAs in Presidential poll is an offence: EC". The Times of India. 10 July 2012. Retrieved 3 August 2012.
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