(Bloomberg) -- They call him “The Chief,” but few outside of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Tory Party know who Julian Smith is. On Wednesday, she’s relying on her chief whip’s math skills to pass key Brexit legislation.
Historically whips were Parliament’s bully boys, determined to chivy reluctant lawmakers through the division lobbies by persuasion, blackmail and even violence. In the face of rebellion, Smith uses more modern methods. One Tory lawmaker compared him to a human resources manager; emollient and persuasive. Another says he has an incredible network in the party.
Smith will need all the charm he can muster to persuade would-be rebels to toe the government line in a knife-edge vote on giving Parliament the power to stop a messy no-deal Brexit. Tempers are running high as Brexiters accuse their colleagues of trying to de-rail Britain’s divorce from the European Union entirely. Swearing and questioning the mental health of their ideological opponents has become the new normal among Tory lawmakers.
“We were always going to get the normal dark arts of Westminster taking place,” said Phillip Lee, a Tory lawmaker who resigned as justice minister last week so he can oppose the government on its Brexit plans. Asked by Sky News if the government has enough votes to win, Solicitor General Robert Buckland replied: “I am optimistic our arguments are strong.”
The horse-trading began early -- ahead of a vote scheduled for 3:30 p.m. in London -- as it looked as if the government had managed to ward off the rebellion. Smith was spotted in the chamber with his thumbs up.
Brexit is arguably the most politically divisive issue of a generation, and lawmakers on both sides of the argument have faced death threats from members of the public. At least one man has been jailed over menacing messages to pro-EU lawmaker Anna Soubry. On the pro-Brexit side, Cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom tweeted a photograph of a letter in February ominously warning: “We are coming for you.’’
It’s in this environment that Smith works to keep Tory lawmakers in line.
His predecessor, current Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, kept a tarantula on his desk as a facile warning to wayward colleagues. That’s not a patch on some tactics used in the past.
Jack Straw, who went on to hold several Cabinet posts under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, tells of his first encounter with the Labour Party’s deputy chief whip in James Callaghan’s minority government, when a loss could have toppled the administration. Straw was pushed to the wall and grabbed by the testicles. Gasping, he asked what he’d done. “Nowt,” came the response from Walter Harrison, a Yorkshireman. “But think what I’d do if you crossed me.”
May is also running a minority government, but Smith’s problem is that whips don’t have the power they once did. Twitter has given ambitious lawmakers the means to build their public profile outside of party structures, while WhatsApp groups mean rebels can plot together undetected.
At the same time, the anti-Brexit push in the Conservative Party is led by older statesmen such as Kenneth Clark, 79, and Dominic Grieve, 62, both former Cabinet ministers who can’t be bought off with typical promises of promotion.
Grieve has sought multiple compromises with the government. His last-gasp effort on a so-called meaningful vote was rejected by May’s officials late Tuesday, a possible sign the government has the numbers it needs to defeat the Tory rebels on Wednesday. Grieve and others say negotiations continue.
Inside the government’s fifteen-strong whips office, lawmakers are -- like sheep -- divided into flocks. It’s the job of individual whips to take a pastoral interest in their twenty or so charges; to know what they’re thinking on Brexit and pass that intelligence back to Smith. The whips must also know each lawmaker’s price -- or what it would take for them vote with the government.
Good Cop, Bad Cop
On a day with a crunch vote, whips don’t let their charges out of the parliamentary estate. Lawmakers receive a text message asking them to confirm they are present and ready to vote, one Tory grumbled. Whips sometimes operate in tandem in a familiar game of good cop, bad cop, according to a person familiar with their tactics.
This intelligence gathering that can be crucial. In 2006, Blair lost a key vote rebel Labour lawmakers hid in their offices, lulling the whips into a false sense of security before emerging to vote against their own side. The tactic was inspired by an episode of the U.S. television program, “The West Wing.”
During the Brexit debate last week, Smith could be seen darting in and out of the House of Commons, liaising with Tory backbenchers over a compromise. Just fifteen minutes before voting began, the rebels were ushered into May’s office for a private meeting.
She said enough to stop all but two rebelling, but they later cried foul when the government backed down on its promise. A second attempt to reach a compromise also ended in recriminations after a deal the rebels said they could live with was thwarted by other pro-Brexit lawmakers.
That leaves Smith with little goodwill among the rebels left to play with.
Assuming all Labour lawmakers vote as before, 15 Conservative rebels would be enough to defeat the government. Labour whips also believe they can persuade some of their own rebels from last week to abstain or oppose the government, meaning it would take fewer on the Tory side. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn wants to destabilize May to try to secure an early general election.
But even some Labour lawmakers don’t want to serve in a Corbyn administration, meaning they may not toe the party line.
So whips from both sides will be busy -- and lawmakers will have almost nowhere to hide.
“We used to have a bog trotter whose job was to run around all the toilets to see if anyone was locked in,” Joe Ashton, a Labour Party whip in the 1970s, told Parliament in 1997. “We had to look under the door for feet and, if seen, we looked over the top. If that person was one of theirs we left him, if it was one of ours, we got him out -- if necessary with a screwdriver to unlock the door from the outside.”
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