WATCH: John McDonnell calls for Tory chairman and chief whip to resign over pairing row
John McDonnell has called for the Tory chairman and the party’s chief whip to resign over their involvement in breaching a longstanding parliamentary convention this week.
An angry backlash swelled in Westminster after it emerged Brandon Lewis voted on two knife-edge divisions on key Brexit legislation in the Commons despite having been paired with a pregnant MP.
The process allows MPs who are on maternity leave, ill or out of the country to be paired off with an opposition MP so that their vote is cancelled out.
But Mr Lewis, who was paired with Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson, took part in two of seven votes over Brexit on Monday evening, including one that was won by the Government by three votes.
The Conservative chairman did so under the direction of Chief Whip Mr Smith, who insisted this was done in error. But newspaper reports this week suggested other MPs were also directed to breach their pair.
Mr McDonnell argued that both men should now tender their resignations in light of the row.
When asked on Sky News’ Ridge on Sunday whether Mr Smith should quit, he replied: “Yes, I think so. I don’t say that lightly.
“Theresa May at Prime Minister’s Questions said ‘this was done in error’ etcetera. We now know there were instructions given about breaking the whip to people. I don’t think it’s acceptable, that.
“Do you know, in parliament you have to have certain democratic standards and once you start breaking the rules in that way, the operation of the institution itself comes into doubt.
“We need reform as well, we need complete reform. Naz Shah, one of our MPs, was dragged into the Chamber in a wheelchair holding a sick bowl, being sick at the same time. We’ve had people on maternity leave who, again, because of the breaking of the pairing system lost their ability to vote or at least neutralise their loss of a vote. That’s not acceptable.”
Tuning to Mr Lewis, he continued: “I find it very difficult to believe that this was in error. There were seven votes, why was it on this particular vote suddenly he makes an error? I think he has a lot to answer for.”
He added: “I think he should go but I think both of them now need to come clean. We’ve heard from other Tory MPs that the instructions were being given about breaking the whip.”
Writing for PoliticsHome this morning, Lib Dem Chief Whip Alistair Carmichael called for Mr Smith to explain himself to MPs.
“Without satisfactory answers then the smooth working of parliament cannot be guaranteed. With close votes looking to be the norm for the foreseeable future having confidence that arrangements made will be honoured is essential,” he said.
The Sunday Times reported today that ministers were preparing to bring forward a motion to allow proxy voting on legislation from September.
A Whitehall source told the paper that MPs would be allowed to appoint a stand-in from their own party to vote on their behalf should members back plans to be brought forward next term.