Tory chairman Brandon Lewis “cheats” in key Brexit vote

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Brandon Lewis
Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis, Photo: Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Govt

The political train wreck that is Prime Minister Theresa May’s compromise Brexit policy narrowly survived a series of crunch votes in the House of Commons last night. Two key votes passed thanks partly to Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis “forgetting” to honor a longstanding Parliamentary convention – and a promise he made to pro-Brexit Liberal Democrat deputy leader Jo Swinson.

Brandon Lewis and Jo Swinson “paired”

Currently on maternity leave, former Coalition minister Jo Swinson is not currently attending sessions in the House of Commons. Although demands for MPs to be able to vote by proxy are growing, currently an MP has to be physically present in the chamber take part in divisions.

Brandon Lewis paired with Jo SwinsonA long-established but informal method for keeping things fair during key votes is known as “pairing,” where an MP unable to attend a vote is paired with an MP from the opposite side of the issue who agrees to abstain. The convention relies on both sides being honorable, and, although far from perfect, is only rarely violated.

Last night was one of those rare occasions. With “Remainer” Conservative MPs furious over concessions the government has granted to the party’s “Brexiteer” faction, a series of votes were tabled that would severely limit Theresa May’s ability to negotiate a hard Brexit with the European Union. Government loyalist Brandon Lewis was paired with Remainer Jo Swinson, with the understanding that he would not vote during any of the evening’s Commons divisions.

Brandon Lewis did refrain from voting seven times yesterday, but for the two votes where there was a razor-thin margin (including one that the government won 307 votes to 301) Lewis made “an honest mistake” and voted.

Just to be clear, the Honorable Member from Great Yarmouth remembered his promise to Jo Swinson seven times yesterday, but appears to have forgotten about it on the two occasions when his vote was critical. That is the official line.

Brandon Lewis’ trim reckoning

Swinson was understandably furious when she found out what Lewis and the Conservatives had done.

Brandon Lewis offered an apology for his “error”…

…which was understandably rejected…

Tory whip Julian Smith also offered his apology for the Tories’ very convenient mistake.

Jo Swinson: “Now I am angry”

In an internal Liberal Democrat email, Swinson expressed her anger with last night’s situation.

“Two weeks ago, I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. His name is Gabriel and we adore him.

“Last night there was a crucial vote. When I knew I couldn’t be there, I made sure I was ‘paired’. This happens all the time in Parliament. As I could not vote, a Conservative MP agreed not to vote as well, balancing things out.

“But then, at the last minute, the Conservatives went back on their word. The MP I was ‘paired’ with turned up and voted.

“At first I was lost for words, now I am angry.”

Swinson is not the only MP who is angry. Even Conservatives are up in arms.

Long an advocate of equal rights for women in the workforce, Swinson is calling for a binding vote in Parliament to allow the use of proxy votes in future. This would effectively end the need for “pairing.” And, of course, it would end the need for Liberal Democrats to trust Tory whips.

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