03 November 2022

Bushtucker trial by media

In 2022, I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! will be returning to Australian shores for the first time since the pandemic. When the line-up was announced this week, there was a media storm surrounding one of the confirmed contestants.

That contestant is Matt Hancock, the former Health Secretary. He is now no longer a Tory MP. This article will outline the powers within the Conservative Party Constitution and discuss why the party may have removed the whip from Mr Hancock.

Last year, 7.1 million viewers watched Danny Miller, Frankie Bridge and Simon Gregson battle it out in the finale of I’m a Celebrity. Miller, the eventual winner, took on the eating challenge earlier in the series where he ate cow’s teat, pig’s brain and fermented tofu. This year, as well as others, broadcaster Charlene White, sporting greats Mike Tindall and Jill Scott (both MBEs) and Mr Hancock may have to chow down on the same treats.

While the celebrities on I’m a Celebrity are not always household names, there is no doubt that Mr Hancock is. He has been a Conservative MP since 2010, holding various cabinet roles since then. Most notably, during the COVID-19 pandemic, he was the Health Secretary. Mr Hancock’s face remains recognisable across the country. When lockdown was at its strictest, he was often the cabinet minister charged with addressing the nation from Whitehall. And of course he resigned from the cabinet for breaking social distance guidance when footage emerged of him having an office affair at the height of the pandemic.

As the news broke that Mr Hancock was entering the jungle, various Tories announced their dissatisfaction. The deputy chairman of the West Suffolk Conservative Association, Mr Hancock’s constituency association, went on record to say that he was looking forward to seeing the former Health Secretary “eating a kangaroo’s penis”. Mr Hancock has since defended his decision saying that the TV show is a “powerful tool” that he can use to reach young people. He hopes to use the platform to raise awareness for dyslexia.

The Chief Whip, Simon Hart MP, was quick to issue a statement about the matter. He said:

Following a conversation with Matt Hancock, I have considered the situation and believe this is a matter serious enough to warrant suspension of the whip with immediate effect.

But what is the whip? How do you remove it? What are the party’s rules on the matter? And, why does going on reality television warrant such a response?

The Whip or the whip?

As with much of British political terminology, whip has multiple meanings. Mr Hart is the person known as the Chief Whip. He also has a team of Whips who assist him. His job is to enforce discipline within the parliamentary party. Both the Labour Party and the Conservatives have teams of Whips. Most of the other parties in the Commons also have a system of whipping as well. 

The metaphorical whip is essentially membership of the parliamentary party. Every MP who is affiliated to a party has the whip. To have the whip removed, even temporarily, means that the member becomes an Independent MP with immediate effect. There is no physical act in removing the whip. Again, this is the same across all political parties. It is exactly what has happened to Mr Hancock. He is still an MP but no longer aligned to the Conservative Party. The party has, in effect, kicked him out.

Who has the power to remove the whip?

Part XII of the Constitution of the Conservative Party discusses ethics, conduct and standards. It is in this section, at article 89, that the powers of the Conservative Party’s Chief Whip are clearly outlined. Article 89 states:        

For the avoidance of doubt but without prejudice to any of the provisions of this Part, matters of Parliamentary discipline (not touching or concerning the ethics and integrity of a Member of Parliament or Peer) shall at all times remain the responsibility of the Chief Whip in the House of Commons or House of Lords, as the case may be.

It is clear that ultimate authority for disciplining MPs remains with the Chief Whip. It is for Mr Hart and his team to deal with parliamentary discipline in the Conservative Party and them alone.

But why is Mr Hancock being disciplined? The answer to that is far from clear.

Why was Mr Hancock disciplined?

Article 79 of the same Part of the Constitution discusses disrepute. It states:

No Member of Parliament of either House, no Assembly or prospective Assembly Member in England or Wales, no Assembly Member or prospective Assembly Member or its equivalent in Northern Ireland, no Councillor or prospective Councillor, no Candidate or prospective Candidate, no Party Member, or applicant for membership, no Party Officer or prospective employee; shall have engaged or engage in conduct which brings or is likely to bring the party into disrepute.

Article 79 essentially states that no MP, or other party Member, should bring the Conservative Party into disrepute. It is not clear whether Mr Hancock has been suspended for conduct likely to bring the party into disrepute or not and to speculate either way would be pure conjecture. That said, after viewing the media storm this week, I would suggest that it is the reason for Mr Hart’s decision to suspend the whip.

Historically the Chief Whip has had almost free rein to discipline MPs. The rules are, some would argue, deliberately blurred. They allow for an element of political leeway. Although Mr Hart’s statement gives little away, it does state that he believes the matter is serious. As we know, it is for the Chief Whip to decide what to discipline MPs for. As a result, there is often a political aspect to this decision. Again, this is similar across all the parties.

The role of the Chief Whip is unique. There is nothing like it in any other workplace in the UK. The role includes an odd crossover of both a quasi-pastoral duty of care and a duty to uphold party discipline. These two parts of the job do not always sit comfortably alongside one another. At times they are in direct conflict.

Reality TV and the whip

Removal of the whip for appearing on reality tv is not unprecedented. Former cabinet minister, Nadine Dorries, also had the whip withdrawn for appearing on the same show. In her case, it appears that the whip was removed because she failed to inform the party of her intention to appear on the show.

Local Government

The disciplinary procedures for those other individuals mentioned in article 79 differ to those of the parliamentary party. For Conservative Councillors there is a separate set of rules completely. Paragraph 13 of the Rules for Conservative Council Groups sets out the disciplinary procedure for members of Conservative Groups in Local Government.

Unlike the parliamentary system, there is no one individual with absolute power. Instead there are clear rules about the decision making process, when evidence should be presented to the Group Member and the routes available should they wish to make an appeal.

What next?

I’m a Celebrity will be on our screens from 6 November 2022. As it stands Mr Hancock will be appearing on the show. It will be interesting to see whether any other MPs, from any party, choose to follow a similar path to him in the future.

It is worth noting that the whip has been suspended and not removed indefinitely. It may be that when he leaves the jungle, whether that is after one day or three weeks, it is reinstated. Either way, he is required to declare his fee for the programme in his Register of Member’s Interests. He has stated, per the BBC and The Sun, that some of this fee will be donated to charity.

We will find out in the next few weeks whether the deputy chairman of the West Suffolk Conservative Association will get to see Mr Hancock eat his supper. We will also find out what the Conservative Party’s response will be once Mr Hancock returns from Australia.

As for right now, we do know that the rules for parliamentary discipline differ greatly from the disciplinary procedures set out for other aspects of the Conservative Party. In the Houses of Commons and Lords the Whip reigns supreme while at a Local Government level there are systems in place that are more akin to judicial proceedings. The result is that an individual’s membership is less likely to depend on the direction of the political winds at the time. And even if it does they have recourse to appeal most decisions that are made.

Barney Seamer, Wilkin Chapman LLP
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