LONDON — With Prime Minister Theresa May on course to lose a key vote on her Brexit plan in the House of Commons Tuesday, her party machine is in overdrive.
Conservative whips, tasked with ensuring party discipline among backbench members of parliament, face an uphill task, with estimates of well over 100 of their 315 MPs prepared to rebel against the prime minister and vote against the divorce deal she agreed with Brussels.
Current Chief Whip Julian Smith was met with ridicule Thursday when documentary makers released footage of him trying, and failing, to persuade a colleague to back the prime minister.
Notoriously secretive, most whips don’t disclose their tactics. “Whipping, like stripping, is best done in private,” said one former whip via his private secretary when asked by POLITICO’s London Playbook what happens in the whips’ office.
However, Michael Brown, the former MP for Brigg and Cleethorpes who was a junior whip when former Prime Minister John Major attempted to push through the contentious Maastricht Treaty in the face of fierce opposition, was more forthcoming. He gave Playbook this excoriating assessment of the current state of play:
Advice for whips: “[They should have] several weeks ago gone to the prime minister and said: ‘Prime minister, it looks as though we have got 60, 70, 80, 90 rebels. Every time you open your mouth you add another rebel to the total and you should not pursue this policy, and if you do, I as chief whip and all my whips will resign.”
Lost cause: “There is nothing a whip can do between now and next Tuesday, neither chief whip or junior whip can go around and threaten [Brexiteer backbencher Jacob] Rees-Mogg with deselection.