The dirt on the whips’ ‘dirt book’
What is the truth of the “Dirt Book,” a chronicle of MPs’ secret lives and misdemeanours put together by a spy network of parliamentary whips?
There was a notebook into which whips wrote intelligence about fellow MPs. It carried on through the Major years but appears to have disappeared under Tony Blair.
Labour’s first chief whip under Tony Blair, Nick Brown, addressing the first meeting of Labour MPs in parliament after the 1997 election, announced something of a parliamentarians’ spring. He told Labour MPs they need not worry about him operating any kind of “black book.” Their private lives were their own business.
Under the Tories the notebook would be read out to all the whips in the weekly meeting, with contributions made verbally to flesh out what they knew about an individual MP.
With all the whips present, I was told, you wouldn’t choose this moment or means to discuss a very dark crime. You would, one former whip tells me, write down if you thought someone was about to rebel, showing signs of particular political leanings or even a bit distracted by marital trouble, say. You might mention if they were drunk again on duty or rumoured to be suffering money troubles (more on this in a second).
The books, A5 hardback exercise books, were bought in bulk. The whips’ office would get through a book a week on average. They would disappear at the end of each parliament, my source said. In between weekly meetings, the books were kept safe.
Behind the framed painting
In number 12 Downing Street, where the whips’ office used to be until they were turfed out to make way for number 10 communications staff, there was a framed painting behind the chief whip’s desk chair, and behind the painting an alcove with a small metal safe. It’s said the books were kept in there.
The sort of material kept in them in the 1990s wouldn’t have led to criminal convictions, I’m told. It would’ve titillated a newspaper diary and might trigger talk of de-selection. Anything more serious, one whip told me, and it would be passed on verbally.
For Tory MPs facing financial difficulty, the whips’ office virtually advertised itself as a loan facility. Rather than watch a backbencher tumble into bad debt, they would lure them in to talk through the problems and organise a soft loan from a grandee (presumably that would constitute a political donation if it ever came to public attention, but I think such loans never did).
One former whip said these rescue operations were not exploited by the whips to get the upper hand with MPs, but another former whip said he recalled at least one Europe rebel in the Major years who suddenly became a bit more cooperative after a bailout.
Tim Fortescue’s anecdote is brushed aside by former Tory and Labour whips alike. They talk of how some whips loved the cloak and dagger self-image too much, became besotted with the schoolboy prefects’ room atmosphere and found it hard to move on.
Westminster holds its dark secrets like everywhere else. But don’t expect them to have been handily written down and archived.
Many MPs are muttering about the daft notion of books logging crimes lurking in a Westminster safe. What they’re not mocking is the real risk that a welter of allegations will do harm to the wider reputation of politicians and the standing of the mainstream parties.
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