Calls for Britain’s chief whip to stand down over plan to ditch ‘pairing’

‘This government is rotten to its core,’ says Labour’s Ian Lavery of Julian Smith’s actions

Downing Street has expressed confidence in chief whip Julian Smith amid mounting calls for his resignation following reports that he urged Conservative MPs to break with "pairing" arrangements during crucial votes this week. Under a longstanding convention, pairs of MPs on opposing sides agree not to vote if one is unable to come to Westminster because of illness, pregnancy or other reasons.

Mr Smith told Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis to break his pairing arrangement on Tuesday with Liberal MP Jo Swinson, who is on maternity leave. Prime minister Theresa May said on Wednesday that the action, which did not affect the result of the vote on a trade Bill, was the result of an error and Mr Smith and Mr Lewis apologised to Ms Swinson.

On Thursday, however, the Sun reported that four other Conservative MPs had been told to break their pairs ahead of the tight, Brexit-related votes but had refused to do so.

“Julian told me I was needed and told me to come in and vote. Of course he knew I was paired. I didn’t vote and honoured my pair, and he demanded to know why not afterwards. It then appears Julian told the prime minister it was all an honest mistake,” the paper quoted one MP as saying.


‘Tradition and trust’

Amid reports that Mr Smith had admitted to another party’s chief whip that he planned to break pairs for some of the votes, Conservative MPs joined the opposition in raising questions about the chief whip’s role.

"This House relies much on tradition and trust, and a number of things have happened recently that have disturbed me. I was quite ill when we were voting on the EU withdrawal Bill, and there were a lot of votes. I came in to vote and after a number of votes, the Labour whips agreed to nod me through. That courtesy should be extended to everyone, and I do not think that happened recently. I am very concerned to hear that a pairing was broken," said Peter Bone, a veteran Conservative Eurosceptic.

Labour Party chairman Ian Lavery said the prime minister should sack Mr Smith and Mr Lewis.

‘Appalling actions’

“The Tories’ story is changing by the minute as they desperately scramble to cover up their appalling actions. This government is rotten to its core. Julian Smith and Brandon Lewis must now resign or be sacked, and Theresa May must apologise for misleading the House,” he said.

Earlier, the head of HM Revenue and Customs told a House of Lords committee that some aspects of the facilitated customs arrangement, a key element of Ms May's Chequers plan for Brexit, would not be ready by the end of a transition period in December 2020.

“In relation to the repayment mechanism, that would take a bit longer because it needs to be clear about what free trade agreements the UK has signed, how much difference does that make to tariffs, and then business needs to make an economic decision about whether the tariff differential is worth reclaiming or not,” he said.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times