On Wednesday the 18th of July, there was amendment tabled to the House of Commons which called for the UK to stay in the customs union after Brexit in the event of a free trade deal with the European Union being negotiated. There was enough Conservative rebels that the government could feasibly be defeated and the amendment passed. It was at that point that Chief Whip Julian Smith made a decision which would be heavily criticised, to instruct Conservative MPs with pairing agreements to break them and vote with the Government. In order to understand the significance of this, there needs to be a simple understanding of what the pairing system is.
When an MP knows that they are not going to be in the House of Commons for a vote (either for official business or long term, such as an illness or maternity leave), they can contact the Chief Whip or Shadow Chief Whip where applicable and they will be allocated a “pair” MP on the other benches who will either not vote or abstain in order to balance things out. There are some votes where pairing does not take place, hence the scenes of Naz Shah coming in from hospital to vote in a wheelchair last month.
The Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader Jo Swinson, who has given birth in the last month had arranged for this week to have a “pair” Conservative MP, in this case Brandon Lewis. She had been informed prior to the votes that Lewis was her pair MP. However, a check on the House of Commons votes app, clearly shows that he had voted with the government twice that day, once on the customs union, and once on a vote to do with EU Medicinal regulations. Swinson rightly called Lewis out on this on her Twitter, which lead pressure on him to resign from his position as Chairman of the Conservative Party. However, something more sinister surfaced later, that the breaking of the pair was done by instruction by Julian Smith the Chief Whip, although both Lewis and Smith maintain that this was an ‘honest mistake’ (Theresa May used those words this morning in the Commons).
There’s two problems with this. I simply don’t believe that it was an honest mistake on the part of Julian Smith and Brandon Lewis. For his part, Lewis kept his pairing for four out of six votes which means that clearly he hadn’t just made a mistake and Julian Smith knew that this vote was going to be close, hence his ‘honest mistake’ in instructing Brandon Lewis to break his pair in order to vote the a rebel amendment down and another vote which the government actually lost. The pairing system is just Parliamentary convention which isn’t formally incorporated either into the Ministerial Code or any other House of Commons rulebook and as such, there is no way that anyone can be formally reprimanded over this sorry affair. However, what is abundantly clear is that this move is widely seen, including by some Conservative MPs (for example, Heidi Allen) as morally reprehensible.
Firstly, Julian Smith needs to consider his position, as he is where the buck stops as to how this breach of convention took place. His disregard for the unwritten rules needs to have some consequence. Brandon Lewis’s position as Chairman of the Conservative Party is also under threat and I can see why, although his misdemeanour is not as grave as Smith’s/
Secondly, the answer as to how to prevent an abuse of the pairing system from happening again is simple. There needs to be an official framework or protocol, in the statute books in lieu of how to ensure that MPs that cannot vote either due to official business or personal reasons, can ensure this is not a problem. There are two ways of doing this. One would be to enshrine the pairing system into law and take it out of the hands of the whips and into that of the Speaker and their Deputies. Then, there could be defined sanctions for breaking of pairs for both the MP in question and their party whips. Personally, I would prefer a different system, which would be to allow an absent MP to vote by proxy. In this system, an MP unable to attend a Commons vote with good reason could get a colleague to vote on their behalf on an issue. Every MP would select a proxy at the beginning of each session and in the case where their proxy is also not able to attend the vote, they would be allowed to select another one who is in attendance. The Speaker, and their Deputies would obviously be informed of who is the proxy to whom in order to prevent someone voting twice on a bill under the false pretence of being a proxy for another MP. It’s a simple full-proof system that could do away with all the pairing in the shadows, which is a system open to serious abuse, as seen this week.