In former Tory MP Michael Dobbs‘ novel, House of Cards, chief whip Francis Urquhart uses the dubious personal information that party whips gather on MP’s to blackmail them into complying with the government’s (and his own) agenda.
Dobbs’ (fictional) account describes these details as being stored in a filing cabinet but we now know that in reality “dirt books” were used to record MP’s questionable and possibly illegal activities and that these details were often discussed at the top levels of the party hierarchy.
Video © BBC / Channel 4 / ITN
At least one man (in the 1980’s whips were overwhelmingly men) who bullied MPs in this way, former Conservative party whip Tim Fortescue, indicated in an interview with the BBC in 1995 that he knew of instances of child abuse perpetrated by one or more MPs and that he used that knowledge to persuade the offender(s) to toe the party line. If true, many more former and possibly current whips (and potentially ministers) are likely to have shared this information however none have come forward to speak on the record.
Conservative MP, Mark Reckless raised the issue of whips and their dirt books with David Cameron at PMQ’s and his question was dismissed contemptuously. Cameron’s trivialisation of Reckless’ question was further evidence that our Prime Minister does not believe the public’s concern about a possible cover-up of MPs child abuse is an issue that is likely to be sustained and therefore need not be taken too seriously.
Cameron promised that in the hunt for the truth about MP’s child abuse allegations “no stone would be left unturned”. and Theresa May told the house of commons that the inquiries she has instigated would operate under a “presumption of maximum transparency”. These assurances were intended to shore up waning public confidence in a political establishment that has not yet fully recovered from the MP’s expenses scandal 6 years ago.
However, Reckless’ letter clearly sets-out the allegation that government whips have been undertaking a policy of “shredding” dirt books explicitly to prevent them being used as evidence against MPs and ministers at a later date. This legally questionable (and ethically reprehensible) behaviour along with the perceived lack of independence of May’s appointees to lead the latest inquiries seriously undermines Cameron and May’s public assurances that justice will not only be done but also be seen to be done.
Withholding evidence of criminal activity is itself a crime and public confidence in our government’s ability and will to seek justice for the abused and initiate real reform is at rock bottom. It is the view of this blog that both Cameron and May should demonstrate their bona fides in respect of the child abuse inquiries’ independence and transparency by having the proper authorities question (preferably under caution) former Tory whips who appear to be withholding potentially important details and possibly evidence relating to child abuse suspects in the Conservative party.
Black books, threats and rumour: secrets of the whips may be laid bare
At the end of every Commons corridor in the weeks before MPs broke up for the summer recess in 1993, there seemed to be a Conservative whip lurking. John Major’s premiership was imploding over Europe as he waged war with a small band of Eurosceptic Tory rebels. The prime minister had poured petrol on the fire by describing the more hardline sceptics in his party as “bonkers” – or, as he put it on another occasion, “three apples short of a picnic”. Major knew his opponents were bent on stopping ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, even if it meant destroying his government, so the whips were ordered to get out and about to pull them into line.
For young and idealistic backbenchers, the whips’ tactics were a brutal introduction to Westminster. One MP from the 1992 intake recalled last week how they rang members of his family at all hours. “They even kept phoning my wife and saying ‘you should tell him to vote with the government’. It was quite extraordinary,” he said. “They would try everything – threats and inducements – saying they knew things that they didn’t want to have to make public, implying they would if they had to. With some it was affairs, or things like visits to gay nightclubs. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t true, or was gossip, they still tried it on.”
A member of the whips’ office during that period recalls how, every day, he and all the other Tory whips would be expected to write notes into a “black book”, and that these entries would be discussed each morning at a team meeting in the chief whip’s office. “It was mostly fairly mild stuff, about who said what at some meeting of the 1922 Committee, or that kind of thing. But it might be rumours of one sort or another about private things.”
For seasoned MPs and ministers it was all run of the mill, just the way things operated. Tristan Garel-Jones, who was a senior whip under Margaret Thatcher and is said to have been the inspiration for Francis Urquhart in Michael Dobbs’s House of Cards trilogy, kept the “black book” locked in a safe, and the rumour is that the code to open it was the date of his birthday.
Whips – whether Tory, Labour or Lib Dem – have long inhabited a secret, often dark, world at Westminster, one that no one has ever seriously called into question. But now – just possibly – that could change. When wide-ranging inquiries were announced by home secretary Theresa May on Monday into allegations of child abuse in all corners of public life, including into unsubstantiated claims that a paedophile ring involving political figures operated around parliament in the 1980s, questions about the whips’ role as guardians of deep and sometimes sinister information began, at last, to surface.
Labour MP Lisa Nandy was first to draw attention to the possible role of the whips in holding information relevant to the child abuse inquiries. In a Commons debate she referred to comments made by former Tory whip Tim Fortescue, who served in Edward Heath’s government between 1970 and 1973. In a 1995 TV documentary, Fortescue, who died in 2008, said: “Anyone with any sense, who was in trouble, would come to the whips and tell them the truth, and say, ‘Now I’m in a jam. Can you help?’ It might be debt, it might be … a scandal involving small boys, or any kind of scandal in which … a member seemed likely to be mixed up. They’d come and ask if we could help, and if we could, we did.”
The late Tory home secretary Willie Whitelaw told the same programme how information was recorded in the black or “dirt” book: “The dirt book is just a little book where you write down various things you know or hear about people that may or may not be true. I think you could make a very good guess what sorts of things it contains.”
Fortescue added that “scandalous stories” were whips’ stock-in-trade. “When you are trying to persuade a member to vote the way he didn’t want to vote on a controversial issue – which is part of your job – it is possible to suggest that perhaps it would not be in his interest if people knew something or other – very mildly.”
The BBC, the church and the private school system have already been rocked by child abuse revelations. But now MPs of all parties fear that the scandal could be reaching into their own backyard. Even if there is no truth at all in allegations of a paedophile ring at Westminster, they say that parliament, of all places, cannot be seen to be perpetuating systems under which secrets are recorded, kept and sometimes suppressed.
Defenders of the whips’ system say their role as bullies wielding threats is exaggerated and that they are there as much to help MPs who want advice when they hit trouble as they are to twist arms. David Heathcoat-Amory, a Tory deputy chief whip after the 1992 general election, says they are essential to party politics: “If you want a democracy, you have to have political parties, and if you have political parties you have to have discipline, and if you are to have discipline you have to have whips and whips’ offices.”
But while the whips certainly have a role as counsellors, the information they hold is their real secret weapon and where their power has always resided. Demands are now growing for them to reveal what they know.
Several former Tory whips contacted by the Observer said they never heard stories about MPs abusing children, and if they had, the information would have been passed to police. One did say, however, that rumours had circulated about incidents further back than the late 1980s, and he suspected there may have been “a couple of gruesome cases” before his time.
Tory MP Mark Reckless said on Saturday that it was vital that light was shone into parliament’s most secret corners and that it, more than any institution, had to move into the 21st century: “Society has moved on. For a long time there has been a view that this is how things work at Westminster, so this is how things will continue to be. But nobody seems to raise the question of whether it is right or legal.”
He added: “I have come into politics believing that MPs should vote according to their consciences, not as part of a nexus of inducements and threats.”
Across the board, politicians say Lady Butler-Sloss – whose appointment to head the child abuse inquiry has been widely criticised because of her own close links to the establishment – will have to look where no other inquiry has looked ever before – into the wonderful workings of the whip’s offices. Otherwise Westminster will be accused of the ultimate hypocrisy: protecting itself from an inquiry it set up into goings on in our national institutions. There is much scepticism, however. Heathcoat-Amory says: “They have got to try, and they probably will write to ask if there were any written records, but I very much doubt if there is anything there. I think they could be going down a blind alley.”
Suspicion about cover-ups and the wholesale destruction of information going back years is mounting. Not only has the Home Office said that a total of 114 files relating to allegations of organised child abuse – including those made by the late Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens that a paedophile ring existed at Westminster in the 1980s – have gone missing. Now further investigations by MPs have revealed that the Conservative whips’ office began a systematic policy of shredding all written information it held from late 1996 onwards.
The shredding policy, introduced after a memo to the whips was made public on a judge’s orders during Neil Hamilton’s unsuccessful libel case against theGuardian over “cash for questions”, is revealed in the diaries of former Tory MP Gyles Brandreth.
On 11 December 1996, Brandreth wrote: “The question is what to do in future? The chief’s [chief whip’s] conclusion is: keep writing notes – he needs the information, so does the PM. But sleep easy, boys: from now on the notes will be shredded on a regular basis.”
Senior government figures have confirmed that current and historic records have been destroyed and that the “black book” no longer exists. No documents, no traces.
Reckless has written to David Cameron this weekend asking how the decision to destroy whips’ notes came to be made, when it could be argued that such information was government property. Was it part of a cover-up? What bombshells were hidden in those files? He wants the prime minister to compel all Conservative chief whips who have held office since 1960, or their heirs where they are deceased, to provide all the documents that remain in their possession from that time. Some hope.
On Monday home secretary Theresa May told the Commons that the Butler-Sloss inquiry would “have access to all the government papers, reviews and reports that it needs“. With so much information shredded or lost in Whitehall, and with a culture of secrecy so ingrained at the heart of power, it looks as if little could be further from the truth.
Please vote in the poll on my original post.
NSPCC http://www.nspcc.org.uk/ Tel: 0808 800 5000
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) http://www.ceop.police.uk/ Telephone: +44 (0)870 000 3344 or 999 in an emergency
*There is help available for adult survivors of childhood abuse online however I am not in a position to highlight any individual organisation
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