16:06, July 19 67 0 theguardian.com

2018-07-19 16:06:04
Jo Swinson pairing row: Conservatives admit chief whip asked MPs to break arrangements

The Conservatives have been forced to admit that their chief whip asked MPs to breach Commons voting conventions in knife-edge Brexit votes on Tuesday, as opposition parties demanded he quit and queried the accuracy of the prime minister’s account of events.

Party sources conceded on Thursday night that Julian Smith had asked several of his own party’s MPs to break pairing arrangements but some had refused to do so, and the only one who did obey the instruction was paired to a Liberal Democrat MP who was on maternity leave.

They admitted that Smith had wanted some MPs to break “short term” pairing arrangements, where a Tory is asked to skip a vote because an opposition member is unable to attend for good reason, but had made an error in asking party chairman Brandon Lewis to vote because he was paired with Jo Swinson – who only recently gave birth.

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 to miss a vote 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.

Q&A

How does vote pairing work?



MPs must be physically in the voting lobbies in order to cast their vote and parliament has no other system to pass important legislation.So when an MP is ill, away on urgent business or on maternity leave, whips rely on an arcane convention called ‘pairing’, where a rival party member will agree to abstain in order to cancel out an absent MP, so the result is not affected.

Pairing can be short-term – even a couple of hours while a minister gives a speech – or it can be long-term, if an MP is seriously ill or has recently given birth. It’s an informal arrangement not officially recognised by the Commons, and mainly benefits the government of the day, which may have ministers away on urgent business. Pairing can be suspended if there are bills of huge national importance, which is why MPs can sometimes be seen being wheeled through in wheelchairs or bringing newborn babies through the lobbies, but party whips would expect to be informed in advance.

Some parties don’t agree with the system - like the SNP - and don’t take part. And sometimes arrangements break down, most famously in the minority government of the 1970s when the Tories accused Labour of deliberately misleading them on pairing. Michael Heseltine became so irate he swung the House of Commons mace in the chamber, causing the suspension of the session. 

Smith was under intense pressure to see off a Tory rebel amendment on Tuesday’s trade bill, which called for the UK to remain in a customs union with the EU if a free trade deal could not be negotiated quickly. The Conservatives narrowly won by six votes.

“We can’t say that no instructions were given about breaking short term pairing arrangements, we can’t say that we didn’t think about it. This does happen: so far in this parliament 66 pairs have been broken, 52 by opposition parties,” a Conservative source said.

Labour called for Smith and Lewis to resign, and accused Theresa May of giving the Commons a misleading account of events when she had said at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday that Lewis’s vote “was done in error”.

Ian Lavery, Labour’s chairman, said: “Julian Smith and Brandon Lewis must now resign or be sacked, and Theresa May must apologise for misleading the house.” Jon Trickett, the shadow cabinet office minister, wrote to the cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, to complain May had breached the ministerial code.

No 10 said it stood by both May’s statement and Smith, but admitted that a mistake that had been made was to ask Lewis to vote when he was on a “long term” pair with Swinson. The prime minister had said: “We take pairing very seriously and we recognise its value to parliament. We will continue to guarantee a pair for MPs who are currently pregnant or who have a newborn baby.”

Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dem chief whip, said: “The distinction the government are making between long-term pairing and short pairing is false.” He called on Smith to take the unusual step of coming to parliament to explain himself to MPs.

It is not the first time that Smith has been at the centre of a row about whipping arrangements as the government tries to get through its Brexit legislation at a time when it has a wafer thin parliamentary majority.

In June the sick Labour MP Naz Shah had to be pushed through the division lobby in a wheelchair after the Tory whips refused a request to allow her vote to be counted without her having to pass through the lobby.

Heidi Allen, a Tory remainer, complained that Smith’s actions this week had undermined trust in parliament. She said that Smith “has been unable to confirm to me that he did not give instructions to break pairs. Therefore I can only conclude MPs were told to break pairs on Tuesday”. She added: “I refuse to be tarnished by this behaviour so will not stand by and say nothing. Integrity and honesty are fundamental to our democracy. Anything less is unacceptable.”

Lewis voted only twice in the trade bill debate, both on knife-edge votes. 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.

Suspicions about Lewis’s voting came to a head on Thursday. Tory MP Andrew Bridgen seemed to cast doubt on claims the incident was an honest mistake. He 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.”

Earlier the issue was debated in parliament. 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 the MP. “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.”

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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