More on what whips do

Yesterday I had to do proper Whips procedural business in the Commons. I think I may have put on Twitter something like ‘Had my first proper whipping session in the Chamber and found it rather traumatic’. Probably not the best choice of phraseology.

We had a series of votes yesterday afternoon. It was House business, not Government business, and therefore it was a one line whip. No attendance necessary, and free votes. The votes were about the setting up of Regional Grand Committees. The Tories in their wisdom decided that rather than take all the regions as a group, they wanted a vote on each of the seven in turn, which equates to about an hour and 45 minutes worth of Commons time.

As this part of the day started I was on bench duty in the Chamber. That meant that when the Deputy Speaker said ‘Motion Number 7’ I had to stand up and say ‘I beg to move’. He would then say, ‘Moved formally – all those in favour say Aye’ and I would, along with any other colleague who cared to join in, shout Aye. Then ‘All those against say No’, and if anyone shouts No, there’s a division and we vote.

Then for some reason, after the division bell has gone and people start to pile into the division lobbies, the bench duty whip has to stay on the bench and gets asked the same question again by the Speaker, i.e. ‘All those in favour…’ and has to say ‘Aye’ again. Then we can go and vote. So far, so simple.

Later on I came off the bench and became a teller, which means you have to count members coming out of the division lobby. This is fine if there’s a steady stream of them, but when it slows down to a trickle at the end, with the MPs who’ve managed to collar Ministers in the lobby to talk about urgent constituency matters, or people who have locked themselves in the toilets, then it is very important not to let your mind wander and to remember what number you have got to. There is another whip standing there, keeping an eye on your counting, who is sometimes from your own side and sometimes from the other side, for reasons too complicated to explain here. (Thinks it depends whether it’s whipped business or not, but still sussing that one out). Obviously if it’s someone from your own side they’ll be helpful and remind you if you forget what comes after 79, but if it’s the Opposition they would probably love nothing more than a bit of confusion and chaos over how many have voted.

After eight minutes the entrance doors to the division lobbies are locked, and a bit later than that one of the more senior whips will check the toilets, check under the tables and behind the curtains, and come through the doors shouting ‘All out!’ The tellers can then go into the Chamber and report their numbers to the Clerk of the House, who sits at the table in front of the Speaker. Again, not as simple as it sounds, as there is apparently a rule that you must go to one particular side of the table, near the Opposition benches, to hand in your piece of paper. It must not be handed in from the other side. I say that having approached the wrong side twice on my first outing. Unwritten rules, dontcha just love ’em?

You then have to go and stand in front of that desk with the other three tellers and when the Speaker says ‘Order Order’ you bow, take a step forward, bow again – and you have to be very quick off the mark as the bowing and stepping and bowing happens very quickly. As the (very nice) Deputy Speaker Sir Alan Haselhurst reminded me after my second attempt: ‘it is meant to be synchronised bowing, Kerry’. He should have seen me at the first and only aerobics class I ever attended. It’s very difficult keeping up!

After this, one of the tellers for the winning side reads out the result: ‘The Ayes to the Right, 320. The Noes to the Left, 206’ or whatever it is. The tellers for the winning side always stand on the Speaker’s Left. I used to get rather confused by this, wondering why they were sometimes saying the Ayes to the Right when the Noes were standing there. In fact ‘the Ayes to the Right’ is a reference to the fact that the Aye division lobby is on the Speaker’s Right, i.e. behind the Government benches.

Anyway, I find all this sort of stuff rather traumatic. I was absolutely fine, right from the start, when it came to speaking in the Chamber. Didn’t even have first night nerves on my maiden speech. (It’s de rigeur to say you were really nervous, and couldn’t stop your knees from knocking and your hands from shaking, but I was fairly blase about it). But having to remember when to bow and when to say ‘I beg to move’ and when you ‘Beg to Move that the House do now Adjourn’ and when it’s ‘Beg to Move that the Sitting do now Adjourn’ (the answer being that it’s the latter when it’s in Westminster Hall)… all this is very taxing. It’s a bit like voting in Bill Committees – we vote alphabetically, with the clerk calling out our names and each person saying ‘Aye’ or ‘No’ or ‘No Vote’. Even though I know which way I’m voting, and even though, being a reasonable way through the alphabet, at least some of my colleagues get to go first, I still find myself having to write down Aye or No on a piece of paper and mentally rehearse it over and over again, and I still always heave a huge sigh of relief once I’ve actually got the word out.

I blame it on the fact I’m used to having my mind on twenty things at once. Now it’s a case of sitting there trying to think of nothing else but the next few words. ‘I beg to move’, ‘I beg to move’, ‘I beg to move’…. And of course you manage to do that right up until about five seconds before you’re actually supposed to say ‘I beg to move’ and then your mind starts wandering onto just why Simon Hughes is wearing such a bright green tie, and before you know it the Deputy Speaker is looking at you and obviously expecting you to say something.

Mind you, earlier today he was giving me one of those looks while the Minister was talking, and then looking very meaningfully down at my sandals in the way Miranda looks at Andrea’s hideous shoes when she first turns up for work in The Devil Wears Prada. It turned out to be his way of telling me I’d dropped my pen on the floor.

I’ve never been a supporter of the idea of electronic voting, as it would remove from MPs the opportunity to lobby Ministers while a division is taking place, but I think I might soon become a convert. And how about just flashing the results up on a big screen like they do at football matches?

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