I am no Brad Pitt but the same is also true of the Whips’ Office.
It is not normally my practice to discuss whipping arrangements for the parliamentary party, nor to discuss publicly the process by which decisions are reached. Today, however, I am prepared (exceptionally) to do so and to explain the decision taken last night to allow Liberal Democrat MPs a free vote on the Equal Marriage Bill when it comes to the House of Commons next month.
As I explained at Federal Conference in September I take as my starting point that as this is a government bill brought forward by a government minister in government time then votes will be whipped. That is, however, what lawyers would call a rebuttable presumption and the Conservative and Labour Parties having declared this to be a free vote for their MPs it would be wrong for me not to take the views of my colleagues before making a decision for Liberal Democrat MPs.
Accordingly the parliamentary party discussed the issue at its weekly meeting last night. The view of my parliamentary colleagues that came up time and again was that they supported equal marriage and were keen to see it on the statute book. They wanted, in fact, not just to support the bill but to be seen to support it because they do and not because they have been told to. Incidentally no MP who spoke in the discussion last night opposed the idea of equal marriage. That is not to say that a few of my colleagues do not have significant concerns about the proposal as I know that some do. I strongly suspect that any colleague who does harbour doubts would not have these doubts addressed just by the application of an instruction to the vote.
I should stress at this stage that the only decision we have made is on the second reading vote – the broad principle of the bill – for all other votes my initial presumption of whipping still applies. For any other vote to be a free vote there would have to be a genuine element of conscience. Merely being a vote on this bill will not automatically make it a free vote.
Obviously there would be an opportunity for us to maintain a distinctive position by whipping votes on this bill while others did not. Against that, however, we have to weigh some significant disadvantages. Principal of these, in my view, would be that for us to whip votes would leave us open to attack on the process which would be used as a proxy for the substance. Where our arguments are strong on the substance of the issue to leave ourselves unnecessarily exposed on process makes little sense to me.
Ultimately there is an element of judgement involved here. For those who feel that this is an issue of equality and not conscience (a view for which I am personally not without sympathy) I would say this: judge us by the outcome we achieve. I believe that we shall be successful in implementing our equal marriage proposals and that the vast majority of Liberal Democrat MPs and peers will play their part in doing so.
Finally, I hope that as a party, as we advance the case for equal marriage in the debate we shall give credit to Nick Clegg, Lynne Featherstone, Jo Swinson, LGBT+ Lib Dems and others who have done so much to get this issue so far. They have taken it this far. It is now for the rest of us to get it over the finishing line.
* Alistair Carmichael is the MP for Orkney and Shetland