Whips' tricks kill the House's trusty system

Click to follow
The Independent Online
It is rather like teaming up with your business rival to avoid going to work. Dennis Skinner calls it "organised truancy". Most MPs prefer to describe it as "a sensible arrangement" or "a matter of mutual convenience". But the system of "pairing" operated at Westminster - collaborating with a member of the Opposition so that both can be absent from the Chamber - is almost as old as Parliament itself. In Edwardian times, and later, the Tory knights of the shires would bring in a brace of pheasants or a food-and-drink hamper for their grateful pair.

Last week, the deal finally broke down when the Conservatives were caught fiddling the system, pairing some of their men with both Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs simultaneously. There is even hushed talk that this is not the first time the whips have stooped to such malpractice. On Friday, Lord Tebbit, the former party chairman, accused Conservative business managers of cheating, and told them: "On your bike."

That the practice of pairing exists at all was not popularly known until it fell apart. But all Labour MPs, except Mr Skinner and one or two others who regard it as sleeping with the enemy, have a pair.

The system works on nods and winks, or "trust" as MPs like to say. Members choose their own pair, hawking themselves round at the beginning of each parliament. Once a deal is struck, it is reported to the pairing whip: George Mudie, MP for Leeds East, for Labour, and Derek Conway, MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham, for the Tories.

John Biffen, former Leader of the House, wrote in his book about life behind the scenes at Westminster: "The `pairing' whips from the two main parties work together, comparing their books so there can be no misunderstanding or subsequent accusations of broken faith. It demonstrates a reality that should discomfit those who so easily accuse Westminster of practising adversarial politics." Revisited with these words yesterday, he said: "The players have replaced the gentlemen."

The system leads to some unusual bedfellows. Denis MacShane, flamboyant Eurofederalist MP for Rotherham, is paired with Nicholas "Bunter" Soames, the Armed Services minister. Few Tory MPs are more unionist than John Carlisle, Tory MP for Luton North, yet he is paired with John Hume, leader of the Irish nationalist SDLP.

The arrangement is usually workmanlike, rather than pally. The member who wants a night off, or has an outside engagement, rings up his pair and arranges for him not to vote. He then tells his pairing whip, and they can both absent themselves. (The system does not apply to three- line whipping instructions, when the parties pull out all the stops to win a Commons vote.) Labour's decision to end pairing indefinitely will halt this cosy deal.

The system does not always work out. John Whittingdale, Tory MP for Colchester South and Maldon, met Tessa Jowell, Labour MP for Dulwich, on a radio programe and decided they would make a good political twosome. To his astonishment she asked about his views on capital punishment. Essex Men hang 'em high, and he said so. She promptly demurred. Mr Whittingdale was confused by the logic at work here. If there was ever a vote on capital punishment, would not their votes cancel each other out? And wasn't that the point of pairing?

Sir Donald Thompson MP, a Conservative pairing whip during Margaret Thatcher's reign, defends the system. "It is a perfectly honourable, reasonable way of conducting business. Pairs are very precious. If you get one, your ability to operate outside the Palace of Westminster as well as in it is multiplied a thousand times. If you haven't got one, you have to keep your nose to the parliamentary grindstone. And there have been remarkable friendships struck between pairs."

Not any more, or at least not this side of an abject apology from Tory party chairman Brian Mawhinney for last week's fiddle. Even John Major (who believes that the whole affair is a "misunderstanding") has lost his pair. Dafydd Wigley, leader of the Welsh nationalists, has pulled out of their pairing agreement - the final seasonal indignity.

Donald Dewar profile, page 15