Brexit: Fresh pressure on chief whip after claims of foul play over knife-edge vote

'Despite repeatedly asking Julian Smith direct questions this afternoon, he has been unable to confirm to me that he did not give instructions to break pairs,' says Tory MP

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
Thursday 19 July 2018 20:48
Comments
Harriet Harman calls for an end to pairing in Parliament, Theresa May responds 'The breaking of the pair was an error'

The Conservative chief whip was clinging to office last night amid fresh claims he had engaged in foul play on a crucial Brexit vote by breaking a pact with an MP on maternity leave.

Downing Street said the prime minister still had full confidence in Julian Smith and believed he acted “in error” over pairing arrangements, which saw Tory chairman Brandon Lewis break his pair with Lib Dem deputy leader Jo Swinson, who has recently had a baby.

However both men have come under intense pressure to quit, after it emerged the failure to keep the agreement may have been planned rather than an “error”, as they claimed.

Conservative MP Heidi Allen said she had challenged Mr Smith about the incident and he was “unable to confirm” he had not ordered MPs to break the pact.

She said: “Despite repeatedly asking Julian Smith direct questions this afternoon, he has been unable to confirm to me that he did not give instructions to break pairs.

“Therefore I can only conclude MPs were told to break pairs on Tuesday.”

Tory former minister Anna Soubry, a leading Remainer, said: “If true this is appalling and those responsible must resign. If we cannot behave with honour we are nothing.”

And Conservative Eurosceptic Peter Bone told MPs that he was ”very concerned” to hear that the agreement had been broken.

A statement by the Conservative party failed to deny claims that Mr Smith told several Tory MPs to vote on Tuesday during a key Brexit bill, despite being paired with ill or pregnant MPs.

The spokesman said: “We have apologised for the fact that a pregnancy pairing arrangement was broken in error this week.

“No other pairs offered on the Trade Bill on Tuesday were broken.”

Ms May is also facing calls to apologise for telling MPs that the breaking of the pair was “done in error” and told she must sack the two men if they would not step down.

Labour Party chairman Ian Lavery said: “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.”

The prime minister told MPs on Wednesday that the breaking of the pair was “done in error”, adding: “It wasn’t good enough and will not be repeated.”

However The Times reported that the party chairman and two other Tory MPs were told by Mr Smith that they should go ahead and vote despite being paired.

The two unnamed MPs reportedly ignored the instruction after seeking further advice.

Ms Swinson, who gave birth to her son Gabriel two weeks ago, said: “Well ... This reflects pretty badly on those peddling the ‘honest mistake’ nonsense.

“To be fair, hats off to the two MPs who told their chief whip to take a running jump when he asked them to break a pairing just because the government might lose.”

The actions did not change the result of the knife-edge votes, with the government narrowly securing victory.

However it ramped up pressure on ministers to look at proxy voting, which would end the need for pairing.

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