Alistair Carmichael: Julian Smith needs to explain himself to Parliament over pairing fiasco
Liberal Democrat Chief Whip Alistair Carmichael calls on his Tory counterpart Julian Smith to explain himself to MPs over the pairing row that has engulfed the Tory party over the past week.
At first glance the issue of pairing may seem obscure and irrelevant to how Parliament – and our democracy – works. In House of Cards, Ian Richardson’s Sir Francis Urqhurt concerns himself with other activities, putting rat poison in cocaine and throwing journalists off roofs. But I can assure you the system is inherently linked to that most sober and fragile of things in politics: trust.
I held the position for the first three years of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. I worked with a succession of experienced and capable Tory Chief Whips; Sir Patrick McLoughlin, Andrew Mitchell and latterly, Sir George Young. Let’s be honest there were occasional grumbles, but when something was agreed it was agreed and it happened.
Parliament works on some arcane and outdated conventions. Much of these are opaque to the outside world, but understood and integral to the effective operation of Parliament. One of these is pairing.
Organised through the Whips Offices, pairing is a joint commitment by two MPs to be absent from a vote thereby cancelling out each other’s absence in the result. This arrangement benefits MPs from all sides and allows Government Ministers to attend important foreign trade delegations or – in the case of my colleague and Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader, Jo Swinson – take maternity leave. In the absence of a much needed parental leave policy for MPs, its operation is all we have to help parents be with their babies.
When I was a newly elected MP in 2001, my youngest son was just ten weeks old. After nature’s call I remember having to change his nappy on a copy of The Daily Record. Fortunately facilities have changed so that is now more a choice than a necessity.
On Tuesday night Jo and Brandon Lewis, the Conservative Party Chairman were paired. Mr Lewis honoured this pair for six divisions before, for some reason, breaking it on the two tightest results of the night: a narrow Government defeat and a narrow Government victory. Both results with single figure majorities. Mr Lewis’s explanation on Twitter was to claim that it was an “honest mistake”, a line repeated by the Prime Minister on television on Friday and during PMQs and by Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the House.
I met the Government Chief Whip privately who provided me with an apology and partial explanation. Mistakes do happen.
Since that conversation, the Chief Whip’s explanations and apologies have become increasingly, shall we say, elaborate. As you would expect, I am struggling to find this satisfactory.
If it was an accident, why are there reports of other near misses only adverted by honourable Tory MPs defying his orders to break their pair? If it was a deliberate breaking of a pair, why was no notice given to my party or others?
If I were to cancel the pair of a Government Minister in China at 30 minutes notice, I could hardly expect them to appear in time to vote and it would certainly not be in the spirit of the exercise.
These are just some of the questions that demand answers this weekend. 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.
The Tory Chief Whip may of course be able to explain what happened on Tuesday, but he must do so publicly at the despatch box in the House of Commons at the earliest opportunity. Tomorrow allows him an opportunity to explain and I invite him to do that.