‘Pairing’ is one of those arcane Parliamentary practices covering voting – or rather, not voting – that somehow survives where modern electronic, internet-enabled technology ought to obviate the need for MPs to vote in person by physically trooping through Aye or No lobbies to be physically counted by tellers, but doesn’t.
It’s a strictly informal arrangement, not recognised by official House of Commons procedures, between two MPs of opposing parties not to vote in a division, thereby cancelling out each other’s votes. Though clearly equitable in the case of, say, a Minister or MP temporarily overseas on official business, in other circumstances it can be open to abuse.
The Commons votes of Monday/Tuesday 16th/17th July respectively, on the Cross-Border Trade Bill, saturated with Brexit significance by a 12-strong bloc of unreconciled ‘Conservative’-Remainer MPs trying to defeat their own government, were extremely close. In the end, the Government prevailed by six votes, mainly thanks to the votes of five Labour-Brexiteer MPs.
At least three Liberal Democrat MPs, however, were absent, and so did not vote: it was over one of them, Jo Swinson, that a row subsequently erupted. The allegation was made that, although she was officially ‘paired’ with ‘Conservative’ Party chairman Brandon Lewis MP, because she was on maternity leave, the Government Whips instructed all its available MPs to vote anyway, effectively breaking the Lewis-Swinson pair.
Accusation, denial, condemnation and counter-accusation duly followed, culminating in the Government first claiming that the ‘pair’-breaking had been an ‘honest mistake’, but then apologising profusely for it and vowing not to repeat it.
So far, so predictable. And there the matter might have subsided, but for an apparent attempt – whether instigated by Swinson herself, or LibDem Chief Whip Alastair Carmichael, or identity-politics social justice warriors from one of the other parties is unclear – to capitalise on it by playing the feminist victim-card, stressing Swinson’s inability to attend the key vote(s) specifically because of her being on maternity leave.
Perhaps, though, someone should have checked the LibDems’ Twitter feed first. Because it didn’t take long to emerge that, despite Swinson’s maternity leave having allegedly prevented her attendance at those key Commons votes, it hadn’t stood in the way of her virtue-signalling attendance at an anti-Trump demonstration three or four days earlier, on Friday 13th July. Along, evidently, with said offspring.
We must always stand up against Trump's brand of hateful, divisive politics, especially when our Government is unwilling to do so. #LibDemsAgainstTrump #TrumpUKVisit #TrumpProtest pic.twitter.com/iSl2xGHjng
— Liberal Democrats (@LibDems) July 13, 2018
In a truly shocking, but no doubt inadvertent, aberration from feminist solidarity, this was inconveniently pointed out by, among others, one of those five Labour-Brexiteer MPs whose vote enabled a Government victory, Vauxhall’s Kate Hoey. And was it right, asked commentators, to whinge about exclusion from a key vote because of being on maternity leave, but to take an infant along to what was potentially a violent demonstration?
Then it all got worse.
It transpired that, apart from Swinson, neither the immediate past, nor present, leader of the LibDems managed to attend those key votes either – the three of them accounting for no fewer than a quarter of their entire complement of 12 MPs.
Even more deliciously, in leader Vince Cable’s case, this was because he had been busy attending a ‘confidential dinner’ about the setting up of a new ‘anti-Brexit movement’.
A new, centrist, pro-Remain party? But isn’t that supposed to be the defining USP and key electoral proposition of the party that he now leads? The one which secured a massive, erm, seven per cent of the vote at the 2017 General Election?
In addition, the LibDems refused to say which Labour figures, if any, had attended Cable’s ‘confidential dinner’. Was that perhaps because there was little interest from anti-Corbyn Labour ‘moderates’, contemplating a splitting-off, at the prospect of Cable as leader? And whoever might be providing the funding remains a matter for speculation.
Probably inevitably, the spat has prompted the operation of ‘pairing’ arrangements to be examined rather more closely than might otherwise have occurred. Of 2,000 ‘pairs’ arranged since the Election, reported Politics Sense, 66 have been broken: 14 by the Government and 52 by Opposition parties, of which seven were by the LibDems.
Which, assuming those figures are correct, prompted the question: are the LibDems themselves the biggest breakers of ‘pairing’ arrangements?
Proportionately, the answer seems to be Yes. With seven out of 66 since the 2017 General Election, they have instigated 11 per cent of all ‘pair’-breaks, despite having only two per cent of all MPs. Moreover, despite having only four per cent of the total number of ‘Conservative’ MPs, they have been responsible for 50 per cent of the number of ‘Conservative’ pair-breaks, and 33 per cent of the combined ‘Conservative’ and LibDem total.
Then, on the morning of Monday 23rd July, The Times reported the rumoured existence of a plot to oust and replace Cable as party leader.
Going in a mere five days from carping about an alleged breach of an arcane Parliamentary procedure to a plot to oust the leader is pretty impressive, even for the LibDems. Remind me again of that old proverb about people in glass houses?