Interview: Alistair Carmichael Part 2 – The Life of a Whip

Welcome to the second part of my interview with Liberal Democrat Chief Whip and Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael.

Most of us who are interested in politics have either read House of Cards or watched it on DVD and think we know how a Chief Whip operates from watching the dastardly Francis Urquhart at work. I said to Alistair that I really didn’t think pushing people off buildings or lacing their heroin with rat poison was quite his style – so what was a typical day in the life of a Chief Whip like?

Caron, that’s one of the nicest things anyone’s said to me in quite a long time. There is no such thing as a typical day in the life of a chief whip. One of the wonderful things about this job and one of the reasons I absolutely love it is that no two days are ever the same. There are milestones in every day that are the same. Half an hour before the House sits, I meet with the other Liberal Democrat whips. Then fifteen minutes later, there’s a meeting of coalition whips but beyond that just about anything can happen in the course of a day.

I remember the last day of the session before Christmas. We had a team meeting  with fellow whips and staff and we discussed everything and I’d just said that there’s nothing in the diary, let’s just get the desks clear and get home for Christmas. Half an hour later, stories started to run about the extended version of Vince’s comments to the Daily Telegraph which took up the rest of that day and a few after that.

My day will have points where I’ll be quietly getting on with stuff and someone sticks their head round the door and says “Can I have a word?” and that conversation might just change the rest of my day. We have to respond to whatever the political circumstances of the day produce.

Independence of mind is a laudable quality in abundant supply on our benches. I put it to Alistair that that can’t always make his job easy.

The  transformation from opposition to government has brought enormous change and some people in the party both in parliament  and outside have dealt with that more easily than others. All of my colleagues now have an understanding that when you are in government  then the way in which you make things happen is sometimes different from what you would do in opposition. Because you’re in Government you have direct access to ministers and officials you would only have dreamt of in opposition and the quid pro quo for that is that you sometimes have to be more measured in what you say and how you vote. I say to my colleagues that they should only ever vote against the government if they absolutely want to see the government defeated and, obviously, if the Government is defeated, that will have its own consequences.

So, I ventured,  it’s like picking the battles that you really need to win?

For a back bencher to vote against the government I think diminishes the opportunity for promoting their case especially in coalition. We are all having to learn. We put in place structures which reflect our traditions – we’ve set up these parliamentary policy committees which have representation from the Lords, Commons & party bodies which work really well. There’s  the work Tom Brake has done on home affairs, Stephen Williams on Treasury, Martin Horwood on Foreign Affairs. They are producing some very Lib Dem responses to some very tricky issues for us and if they are the ones who engage in the issue and who are then able to come up with an approach and strategy for the party then it’s much more effective than having a single authority figure like the Chief Whip – to use the Francis Urquhart phrase – “putting a bit of stick about”. I was a Lib Dem MP for long enough to know that in our party that approach doesn’t work.

I had to ask – saying that I was very discreet, and so were Lib Dem Voice Readers – we wouldn’t tell anybody – which of our lot caused him the most trouble?

All Lib Dem MPs are distinctive and it would be unfair of me to pick out any individual as any more  challenging  to deal with than any other as they are all still friends and colleagues. Maybe the fairer thing to do would be to pick out the best? The best are actually I have to say the other MPs I have as whips. Mark and Norman as the Deputies are absolutely crucial to the maintenance of my sanity and Tessa, Robert and Stephen who work as party whips in amongst all the other duties they  have are absolutely stalwart. Without the help they give me, and the fact that when the red mist descends on me, they are there to pick up the pieces, I don’t know what I’d do.

The last few months have been strange for the whole party – I asked Alistair what the standout memory for him was – the one he’d tell his grandchildren.

He laughed that most of them he wouldn’t be able to tell anyone, going on to say that “there have been different landmarks. Being driven along the Mall in a horse drawn carriage wearing a morning suit and a top hat to the State Opening of Parliament was, I can safely say, something I had never anticipated doing. It wasn’t necessarily a highlight, but it was one of those distinctive memories of those first few weeks.”

The real things that mean something to me – what am I proudest of? That would be the day we got the deal on the ending of detention of children for immigration purposes. Nobody will ever persuade me that a majority Conservative govt would have done that. We know a Labour Government wouldn’t have done it because they used to boast about the fact they detained the kids. That’s one change that meant a lot to me because I campaigned very hard on it in opposition.

I visited  Dungavel, I kind of understand why it needed to be a lock down institution but you could never persuade me that it was a place to keep children and the fact that we are now according to these children who are incredibly vulnerable the dignity and respect we would expect our own children to be getting is something I’m incredibly proud of.

That’s a good place to end this section. We’ll be back with NHS Reform and Alarm Clock Britain later.

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One Comment

  • The ending of Child detention swung me behind the coalition. Thanks Nick.

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