Parties' pairing war dissolves into farce

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The Independent Online
Labour's new campaign of non-co-operation with the Government went from guerrilla warfare to Christmas pantomime farce last night as both sides said they had broken parliamentary rules by accident.

While Conservatives accused Labour of cheating to inflict a government defeat on Tuesday, Labour accused the Tories of similar skulduggery in a crucial vote on Monday.

Opposition parties have given notice that pairing arrangements under which opposing MPs agree not to vote will be suspended from January.

There was embarrassment for the Conservatives as 13 out of 15 Labour "cheats" supposed to have voted despite being paired turned out to have made no such agreement. One Tory supposed to have been cheated admitted he missed Tuesday's vote because went to a BBC Christmas party.

Jerry Hayes, MP for Harlow, said he thought his pair, John McAllion, would also be out. "I went to a very good party, and I assumed there wasn't going to be a vote anyway," he said.

Another Conservative, Julian Brazier, was forced to apologise to his Labour "pair", Rhodri Morgan, for accidentally voting in spite of an agreement not to do so.

There were no official apologies from Conservative Central Office. But the former party whip, Sir Archie Hamilton, said he had reservations about what had happened on Monday when three Tory MPs were apparently "double- paired" with both Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, giving the Government three extra votes.

"I think it was something that the Government might now regret, particularly in terms that we would have won that vote anyway," he said.

There were also rumours that the Cabinet's paging system had broken down on Tuesday and that senior ministers were never even told there was a vote. One senior Conservative source revealed a number of Cabinet ministers and a dozen or so backbench MPs were all at the same Christmas party. Labour MP Alan Simpson said: "It isn't our fault if the Tories are drunk in charge of the country."

Then Labour was forced to own up a gaffe of its own as two of its paired MPs admitted they had voted against the Government in a debate on its anti-stalking Bill when they had promised not to. John Maxton sheepishly told party whips he had gone into the lobby when the division bell had rung without thinking. "It was like Pavlov's dog. I just heard the bells," he said.

A Conservative spokeswoman accused Labour of cheating and pointed out that the party had promised to co-operate with the stalking Bill. The government will now try to reverse Labour's amendment to the Bill in the House of Lords.

Labour's chief whip, Donald Dewar, repeated Labour's own allegations. The Government should apologise, he added.

"There has been no defence, no other explanation other than humbug and bluster," he said.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister lost his parliamentary pair yesterday when Plaid Cymru announced it was withdrawing all pairing activities following the row. Dafydd Wigley MP, the party leader, has paired with Mr Major for almost a decade. But yesterday he said the Government had betrayed his trust.

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