Jess Phillips’ threat to ‘make life a misery’ for anyone blocking proxy voting shows how much it’s needed

Voting by proxy will be trialled, mainly because the behaviour of the Tory whips office means straightforward honour can no longer be relied upon

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Tuesday 22 January 2019 18:58
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Pregnant MPs to be allowed to vote by proxy after Labour MP delayed birth of baby to reject Brexit deal

Mark the moment. At 1:16pm on Tuesday 22 January, the House of Commons came kicking and screaming all the way in to the mid-20th century.

After last week, when Tulip Siddiq was wheeled up the floor of the house in her wheelchair, and last summer, when new mother Jo Swinson had her vote stolen from her by the government whips office, the time has finally come to introduce a proxy voting system for MPs on “baby leave”.

It was Swinson herself who brought the matter up. In July last year, you may recall, she was away from the House of Commons with a brand new baby, during crucial Brexit votes. One of them would have compelled the government to keep Britain in the EU’s customs union if no trade deal was agreed. The kind of thing that, had it been passed, could genuinely be described as history-making.

Swinson was told she had been “paired” in the vote with the Conservative Party chairman, Brandon Lewis. Which means in accordance with a very old custom as she would not be able to cast her vote, the Conservatives had agreed that Lewis wouldn’t vote either, so the two could cancel one another out.

But Lewis did vote in the end. Chief whip Julian Smith claimed it had been “an accident”, and while flailing about hopelessly out of his depth in his own deception, accidentally admitted he had been instructing other MPs to break their pairs too.

In normal times, the honourable thing to do would have been to resign. Smith remains in post.

Which meant that, when Siddiq appeared in her wheelchair last week, on the actual day she had been due to give birth by Caesarean section, to vote in a vote that was not going to be even remotely close, and for which she had been offered a pair by the government – she simply said she did not trust the Conservative whips, who had “stolen the vote of a young mother”.

Things, frankly, cannot go on like this, and as such, from next Monday there will be a year-long pilot in place, in which MPs on baby leave can nominate another MP to vote by proxy on their behalf. They could, in theory, name Julian Smith. But they are far more likely to name someone they can trust.

As the gathered members – most, but not all of them, women, rose to praise the news – some told stories that should make the civilised world squirm. Andrea Jenkyns told of returning, finally, to her Morley and Outwood constituency in Yorkshire at 11pm on a Thursday night, only to find out on arrival that she would, in fact, be required back in Westminster on the Friday for more voting.

Scottish MPs, some of them men, too, told tales of the impossibility of family life, when the office is in Westminster and the family is seven hours away or more.

It is only a limited change. The difference it will make in terms of making the life of a Westminster MP in any way tolerable for mothers, or indeed fathers, with young families is very small indeed.

That it has had to be done, principally because of the damage wrought on the pairing system by the current occupants of the Tory whips office is grim indeed.

In the late 1970s, when the country also had a minority government and had become all but ungovernable, the whips offices decided the other couldn’t be trusted and suspended pairing altogether.

It led to events that were kept secret for years. In 1979, Labour was facing a motion of no confidence that would, in the end, bring down the government, and pave the way for Margaret Thatcher. The Labour whip, Walter Harrison, couldn’t bring himself to demand the terminally ill MP Alfred Broughton be summoned from his death bed to travel down to London to vote.

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He asked his opposite number, Bernard Weatherill, for a pair. Weatherill offered himself, knowing it would lead to Labour carrying the motion, no general election, no Conservative victory, and the end of his career. Harrison declined his offer, and the two men agreed to keep the entire matter secret until one of their deaths.

So the new measures, while principally about making life easier for young mothers, are also about the death of honour in Westminster, at the hands of the current government chief whip.

Oh, and the measures have not actually been introduced yet. They will have to be proposed again next week, when any MP can shout “object”, and kick the whole thing out, as Sir Christopher Chope did recently to the “upskirting bill”.

It may be that he, or someone else, is considering doing so again. But if they do, Labour’s Jess Phillips had a gentle warning for them. “I will make a misery of their lives,” she said, “me and my feminist army.”

What that will involve, she did not say, but if the look on her face can be taken as an indication, it may not be long before the question at hand is not whether or not to wheel in an MP on his deathbed, but to wheel one out.

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