Brexit: Theresa May backs chief whip accused of telling Tory MPs to ignore 'pairing' for knife-edge vote

But the Conservative Party does not deny the claim that Julian Smith urged three Tory MPs to vote on the customs union – despite an agreement to help absent MPs

Harriet Harman calls for an end to pairing in Parliament, Theresa May responds 'The breaking of the pair was an error'

Theresa May has backed her chief whip, despite pressure for him to resign over claims he secretly told Tory MPs to ignore “pairing” arrangements for a knife-edge Brexit vote.

The prime minister still believed that Julian Smith acted “in error”, No 10 said, rather than deliberately seeking to break a Commons convention in place to help sick or pregnant MPs.

Asked if Ms May stood by her statement, on Wednesday, that the action was a mistake, her spokeswoman replied: “Absolutely” – adding that Mr Smith enjoyed her full confidence.

However, a statement by the Conservative Party did not deny the claim that Mr Smith told a total of three Tory MPs to vote on Tuesday, despite being paired.

Brandon Lewis, the party chairman, did break his pair – accidentally, he insisted – but the other two sought further advice and ignored the instruction, The Times reported.

In a carefully worded statement, a Conservative 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.”

Worryingly for No 10, one report suggested the chief whip texted his instruction to one Tory backbencher, saying: “That is an order not a request.”

The claim raised the possibility that Mr Smith had misled not just the Commons, but also the prime minister – causing her to, inadvertently, do the same.

Nevertheless, the spokeswoman suggested Ms May – who is on a visit to Northern Ireland – had no plans to question Mr Smith personally about his actions.

Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, described ordering MPs to ignore pairing as “despicable behaviour which makes politics even more inaccessible for women”, adding: “If true, Julian Smith must resign, or be sacked.”

Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat chief whip, urged Mr Smith to come to the Commons to explain himself, saying he struggled to believe his version of events.

And Andrew Bridgen, a Tory hard Brexit supporter, suggested he did not believe the pairing breakdown was an honest mistake.

He said the fact that Mr Lewis did not vote in most of the divisions on Tuesday night – but did vote in the two crucial ones – “tells you all you need to know”.

Heidi Allen, another Conservative MP, said: “I sincerely hope this isn’t true. No matter how tough the going gets, principle, integrity and standards matter. Without those, what’s left?”

Mr Lewis had been “paired” with Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, who has not been in parliament since giving birth to her second child on 29 June.

She accused him of cheating when he then voted, helping the Tories narrowly avoid a damaging defeat on her plans to leave the EU customs union.

During Prime Minister’s Questions, Ms May told MPs: “The breaking of the pair was done in error. It wasn’t good enough and will not be repeated.”

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