10:48, July 19 126 0 theguardian.com

2018-07-19 10:48:09
Jo Swinson pairing row: Tory whip under pressure to quit over breach

The chief whip, Julian Smith, is under mounting pressure to quit amid a bitter parliamentary row over a pairing arrangement for a Liberal Democrat MP on maternity leave.

Tory sources said Smith had told a number of MPs to break off their pairs over a tight vote on the trade bill on Tuesday, but had intended to respect long-term pairs assigned to MPs on parental leave.

Brandon Lewis, the Tory chair, was reportedly told in error to vote when he was paired with the Lib Dems’ deputy leader, Jo Swinson, who has recently given birth. Other MPs apparently declined to break their pairing arrangement.

“Julian told me I was needed and told me to come in and vote. Of course he knew I was paired,” one MP told the Sun. “I didn’t vote, and honoured my pair, and he demanded to know why not afterwards. It then appears Julian told the prime minister it was all an innocent mistake.”

The Labour chair, Ian Lavery, said both Smith and Lewis should resign. “The Tories’ story is changing by the minute as they desperately scramble to cover up their appalling actions. This government is rotten to the core.

“Julian Smith and Brandon Lewis must now resign or be sacked, and Theresa May must apologise for misleading the house,” he said.

Opposition parties had called for Smith to explain himself to MPs in person.

Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dem chief whip, called for Smith to take the unusual step of making a statement to the Commons to explain why Lewis ended up voting in two key amendments.

He said that what happened had done “serious damage” to the functioning of the house and that a statement from Smith was necessary to restore trust in the pairing arrangements, which allow MPs who are unavailable for good reason to be paired with an opposing member so their absence is not penalised.

Soon after Carmichael’s intervention the Tory MP Andrew Bridgen seemed to cast doubt on claims that the incident was an honest mistake. Bridgen told the BBC’s Daily Politics: “I think the fact that Brandon Lewis abstained on six votes and then just mysteriously voted on the vital two – I think it tells you all you need to know.”

Pairing is a longstanding convention of the Commons, where the whips of the government and an opposition party agree to allow MPs from one side or the other to miss a vote in the house because of personal reasons or official business. The other party agrees to hold back one of their MPs from voting so the two absences cancel each other out and cannot affect the final result.

Lewis voted twice in the trade bill debate. One was on a vote on staying in the customs union if the UK fails to agree a trade deal with the EU, which was narrowly defeated by the government by 307 to 301. Lewis also voted on the amendment relating to EU medicines regulation, which the government lost by four, 305 to 301.

Responding for the government, Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the Commons, apologised for what happened to Swinson, saying it was an error, and that she had texted her own apologies to Swinson. “I will continue to ensure that her maternity pair is in place,” Leadsom added.

Labour’s Wes Streeting said there had been further reports that two other Tory MPs had been told by Smith they should vote on Tuesday despite being told they were paired. What happened “was not a result of accident, it was a result of design”, Streeting said, and accused Leadsom of being “set up, to mislead, however inadvertently”.

That prompted an angry response from Leadsom, who said she was one of the Conservative pairs. She said it was “absolutely abhorrent to be calling out me in particular” and, referring to the Swinson breach, added: “I assured the house yesterday that it was an error.”

Speaking in defence of Smith, Leadsom said: “I did not receive any call from anyone telling me to vote.”

Smith was not present in the chamber during the debate on whipping.

A statement released by the Conservative party said: “We have apologised for the fact that a pregnancy pairing arrangement was broken in error this week. No other pairs offered on the trade bill on Tuesday were broken.”

No 10 referred questions about the developing row to the Conservative party but said May had confidence in Smith.

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