Jo Swinson pairing row: Conservatives admit chief whip asked MPs to break arrangements
From The Guardian: 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 Tory MPs to break pairing arrangements but most had refused to do so. 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 the party chairman, Brandon Lewis, to vote because he was paired with Jo Swinson – who only recently gave birth.
Pairing is a longstanding convention in the Commons, where the whips of the government and an opposition party 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.
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.
A Downing Street source added that Smith “would have been in trouble if he’d lost the customs vote”.
Labour called for Smith and Lewis to resign, and accused Theresa May of giving the Commons a misleading account of events when she 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.