Pairing. A practice that the majority of people would previously never have heard of, but which this week became the centre of a Parliamentary firestorm. It is the convention whereby, if an MP has significant difficulty getting to Westminster to vote on a bill, an opposing MP agrees not to vote either, so that the non-contribution is cancelled out. As excuses for absence go, Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson had a rather good one on Tuesday – she has just given birth. This meant she missed a crucial vote on Brexit, but never fear, she was paired with Conservative MP Brandon Lewis, so no harm was done right?
Well, it emerged the next day that Lewis did vote in what ended up being a knife edge victory for the Government, and while the Tories initially tried their best to deny this was a deliberate betrayal, evidence to the contrary has piled up and Chief Whip Julian Smith has now fallen on his sword and admitted that he instructed the move. This is the last thing the Government needs in a week that has seen continued fall out and confusion over the Chequers Deal, and a botched attempt to get MPs to vote for an early recess so the Prime Minister can dodge a no-confidence vote. But the story is not going away, and the pressure is now mounting on Julian Smith to consider his position. How much longer can the Prime Minister cope with the current rate of Cabinet resignations…?
As well as the immediate headache this has caused for the Government, there is also the impact this will have on the Conservative Party and indeed on politics in general. Already a debate is raging on the back of this about the need for Parliament to reform in order to ensure the system is fair and inclusive for MPs in Jo Swinson’s position. There is also a feeling that what happened on Tuesday will undermine MPs’ trust in each other. Parliament is partisan, but ultimately MPs are colleagues who work together on an array of business, including cross party matters; APPGs, Select Committees, the list goes on. Beyond the party politics which so often dominates the headlines there is – in theory – a shared code.
So, a decision made for short term gain looks like it could cause long term pain. The very last thing our beleaguered Prime Minister needs…