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Tory chairman criticised as government ignores maternity leave deal for knife-edge Brexit votes

4 min read

Conservative whips have been accused of a "calculated, deliberate breaking of trust" after a senior Tory MP twice voted on a knife-edge Brexit bill - despite agreeing to step aside for a Liberal Democrat on maternity leave.

Under a longstanding parliamentary convention, MPs who are on maternity leave, ill or out of the country are "paired off" with a colleague in another party - effectively cancelling out their vote and ensuring their party is not penalised for their absence. 

Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson, who has recently had a baby, was told that she was being paired with Mr Lewis for the Trade Bill.

But Mr Lewis - who has described the move as "an honest mistake made by the whips" - appeared to renege on the agreement by twice taking part in knife-edge divisions on the legislation.

In a string of tweets, Ms Swinson revealed how she had been reassured of the deal by Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom, branding the move a "calculated, deliberate breaking of trust" by Conservative party managers.

Yet voting records show that Mr Lewis walked through the division lobbies twice, in spite of the reassurances from Ms Leadsom that he would not do so. Government chief whip Julian Lewis said the Conservative chairman had been "asked to vote in error".

Mr Lewis first voted in a failed bid to kill off an amendment pushing to keep the UK in the European medicines regulatory network, which the Government lost by four votes.

The Great Yarmouth MP then voted to shut down an amendment from Tory rebels to keep Britain in an EU customs union, which was seen off by just six votes.

His votes were roundly condemned by Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, who said the move by the Tory chairman "disrespects women".

Meanwhile, Labour's shadow equalities minister Dawn Butler described the move as "appalling", and said such treatment could put women off entering politics.

Late on Tuesday night Mr Lewis apologised to the Lib Dem MP for what he said was "an honest mistake".

He told Ms Swinson: "I think it was an honest mistake made by the whips in fast-moving circumstances. I know how important the pair is to everyone, especially new parents, and I apologise."

Conservative chief whip Julian Smith also apologised to Ms Swinson, and said he had spoken to his Lib Dem counterpart about the incident.


It is not the first time the Government has been accused of using underhand tactics to win crucial Brexit votes. Last month, ill Bradford West MP Naz Shah - who was hospitalised with severe nerve pain - was forced to attend a vote in a wheelchair while carrying a sick bucket.


That came after Conservative party managers shelved a longstanding Parliamentary convention that allows sick MPs to be "nodded through", meaning they do not need to be physically in the division lobbies to vote.

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