Passing of a legend

A Commons legend passed on last week. Walter Harrison, the virtuoso whip who kept Jim Callaghan's minority Labour government afloat for 18 months, died last Friday.

Image caption Walter Harrison was an intimidating figure to many

Words like "tough" and "old school" don't convey the sheer force of personality that kept Labour rebels in line and usually delivered enough minority party votes to allow the government to cling to office.

Jack Straw's newly published memoirs include an account of how Harrison once settled an argument with him with a brutal testicular squeeze. The future Lord Chancellor was reduced to teary-eyed agreement in moments. "What was that for…?" he is said to have squeaked. "Nowt," came the answer. "Think what I'd do if you crossed me."

I interviewed Walter in 2004 for a programme about the fall of the Callaghan government, which he did so much to postpone. Even in slightly frail old age, he was an intimidating figure and he dominated the interview. I wanted to talk to him because, as deputy chief whip, he was the "floor manager" who had to deliver a majority for vote after vote; and his duel with his equally wily Conservative opposite number, the future Speaker, Bernard "Jack" Weatherill, was a classic encounter. But I learned rather more than I expected…

Harrison ran one of the most effective whipping operations in parliamentary history, conjuring majorities out of thin air week in, week out. Famously, he provided disguises so that Labour MPs could vote twice in a division, after the Conservatives called an unexpected vote - in breach, he thought, of an agreed deal. He registered the only half-vote recorded in Hansard, having jammed his foot in the lobby door, just as it was about to close, after being delayed because he was stuck in a lift. After a dispute with the parliamentary authorities, he was ruled to have been half in the lobby, and so a demi-vote was registered, and the day was saved for the government again.

His attention to detail in securing votes, based on a stream of detailed intelligence on the activities of every MP, was famous. Juicy foreign trips would be found to lure MPs away, and reduce the opposition vote at key moments - one Conservative with a deep interest in naval matters found himself in mid-Atlantic observing a Nato exercise during a crucial division.

Relays of Labour whips and ministers would be detailed to drink with independent Irish nationalist Frank McGuire, to keep him happy on his rare visits to Westminster, with replacements arriving as each slumped under the whips office table.

The sick and even the dying would be stretchered into the Palace of Westminster to register their votes. One, Sir Alfred "Doc" Broughton, was dying and could only be summoned in the most extreme circumstances - and Weatherill had spies from his local Conservative Association watching his home so that he could be forewarned if Labour decided to call on the "Doc" to vote. Harrison turfed cabinet ministers out of their rooms so that he would have somewhere to rest, and closed the ministerial toilets so that Lady Broughton could use them.

But, in the end, not even Harrison and his team could keep a crumbling government and party in power. And in that 2004 interview, Harrison described how he decided not to hold Weatherill to an agreement to "pair" sick MPs, and stand aside from the confidence vote, because Broughton was unable to vote - had he insisted, Weatherill would have complied, and the vote, which was eventually lost by one, would have been tied.

The government would have survived, but his opposite number would have been finished, and that seemed too high a price to pay, to sustain a tottering government for another few days or weeks…. This story appeared in a Radio 4 Special, Whips Honour, and provoked some irritation from Lord Hattersley, a member of the Callaghan Cabinet. Harrison, though, remained unrepentant - it was an extraordinary example of the relationship between whips.

The funeral is next Friday. Expect an impressive turnout of whips and grandees.

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