Another nasty episode in House
Dear Sir, — On 28th June, you kindly published my letter about the change to the callous procedure this Conservative Government applied for sick and ill MPs who came to the House of Commons to vote.
For decades, sick and ill MPs were “nodded” through as having voted when they were brought to the courtyard of the House of Commons by car or by ambulance.
However, last month this Government unnecessarily changed the procedure forcing sick and ill MPs including one Labour MP, Naz Shah, in a wheelchair and on morphine, to actually vote through the lobby.
Now I have to write about another nasty episode, which this time involved cheating by this Conservative Government.
There has been a long-standing procedure of “pairing,” whereby if an MP of an Opposition party is unable to attend for a valid reason, such as being on maternity leave, an MP of the Government will be “paired” so that they, too, will be absent from voting. The same applies in reverse if a Government MP is unable to vote for a valid reason.
Opposition parties had called for Parliament to debate a change to this system so that an MP on maternity leave etc could instead appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf just as voters can appoint proxies at local and general elections.
However, the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, said this was not necessary because she assured the House of Commons that the pairing system would be applied rigorously.
The Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson, who only gave birth to her son on 29th June and was therefore on maternity leave, was “paired” with Brandon Lewis, the chairman of the Conservative Party for all the votes in the House of Commons last Tuesday, 17th July.
There were eight divisions (when MPs divide into the lobbies to vote) on that Tuesday. The first six votes were not significant divisions and Lewis, in line with the pairing arrangement, did not vote in any of those six divisions, with the sixth division taking place at 6pm.
The last two divisions, however, were on crucial issues, one about remaining in the EU customs union if no deal had been achieved by 21st January, 2019 and the other, on continuing to participate in the European Medicines Agency: the Government was concerned it could lose both motions.
In these two crucial divisions held at 6.15pm and 6.30pm Lewis failed to honour the pairing arrangement with Jo Swinson and voted with the Government.
When found out, Lewis and the chief whip, Julian Smith, claimed that it had been an honest mistake in a fast moving situation.
Of course this was a most unlikely story and quite rightly Jo Swinson declared their actions to be what they were — cheating.
As Jo Swinson put on twitter “Don’t try any nonsense about a mistake — this is calculated, deliberate breaking of trust by govt whips to win at all costs. There’s a word for it — cheating.”
It did not take long for Brandon Lewis’s and Julian Smith’s story to unravel with even a Conservative MP, Andrew Bridgen indicating that he did not believe their story.
Conservative MP Heidi Allen said, “the chief whip had been unable to confirm to her that he did not give instructions to break pairs” and therefore Heidi Allen could “only conclude that Conservative MPs were told to break the pairing arrangement on Tuesday.”
The Times ran a story revealing that Julian Smith admitted to an opposition party’s chief whip that he urged three of his MPs to abandon their pairing arrangement that night.
The Guardian ran a story in which Conservative Party sources admitted that Julian Smith had asked several Conservative MPs to break their pairing arrangements.
Yet despite this Brandon Lewis and Julian Smith informed the leader of the House and the prime minister it was a so-called honest mistake. As a result, both the leader of the House and the prime minister, by making statements that it was an honest mistake, have unwittingly committed the serious offence of misleading the House of Commons.
Labour’s Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, said on Friday: “It is unbelievable that the prime minister has repeated the desperate and blatantly untrue excuses made by her party chair and chief whip.”
Of course both Lewis and Smith should resign or be sacked immediately. In fact if they had any honour they would have resigned days ago. Both the leader of the House and the prime minister must apologise to the House for their misleading statements.
The sagas regarding the Government’s treatment of sick and ill MPs and breaching the pairing arrangement means that this Conservative Government is as Labour’s chairman, Ian Lavery, puts it “rotten to the core.” Given that this Government is playing “dirty”, there is only one option left for all opposition parties — end now all cooperation, including pairing arrangements, with this deceitful and dishonourable Government. — Yours faithfully,
When we made up the letters pages, Conservative Party sources had conceded that Julian Smith had asked several Tory MPs to break pairing arrangements. Most refused. The one who did obey the instruction was paired to an MP on maternity leave.
The defence was that they had wanted some MPs to break short-term pairing arrangements, but had made an error over Ms Swinson, who is on a longer-term arrangement.
This appears to mean that the MPs who were on short-term pairings, that Mr Smith appeared to think were acceptable to break, all refused, but Mr Lewis, the one MP on a long-term pairing, agreed to break it. — Editor.
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