Theresa May faced calls last night to sack two senior figures in her government over claims they deliberately denied East Dunbartonshire MP Jo Swinson on maternity leave her vote in a knife-edge Commons division on Brexit.
Opposition parties demanded that Chief Whip Julian Smith and Conservative Party Chairman Brandon Lewis resign or be sacked over their role in the murky parliamentary convention of pairing in the vote on Tuesday.
Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson raised the alarm after Mr Lewis took part in the crucial vote on remaining in the EU customs union, which saw the government defeat an amendment to trade legislation by just six votes.
Ms Swinson, who gave birth to her second child on 29 June and has not been at parliament since, had been told that the Tory chairman was her pair, meaning he cancel out her absence by abstaining.
She received apologies from Mr Lewis and Mr Smith, who claimed there had been an error, but accused the government of a “calculated, deliberate breaking of trust”.
Out of all the votes on Tuesday, Mr Lewis only took part in the two closest divisions.
Yesterday it was reported that two other Tory MPs had been ‘ordered’ by the chief whip to break pairing arrangements, prompting outrage and calls for the two men to lose their jobs.
It was reported that Mr Smith told the chief whip of another party that he had deliberately sought to break pairing arrangements, but didn’t realise Mr Lewis was paired with Ms Swinson. Last night The Prime Minister came under fresh pressure to set the record straight amid claims she misled the Commons when she insisted the situation arose by mistake. Earlier, Mrs May told MPs the breaking of the pair was “done in error”.
Labour Party chairman Ian Lavery said: “The Tories’ story is changing by the minute as they desperately scramble to cover up their appalling actions.
“This Government is rotten to its core. Julian Smith and Brandon Lewis must now resign or be sacked, and Theresa May must apologise for misleading the House.”
Tory former minister Anna Soubry, a leading Remainer, said: “If true this is appalling and those responsible must resign. If we cannot behave with honour we are nothing.” Conservative Brexiteer Peter Bone said he was “very concerned” to hear that a pairing had been broken. Conservative MP Heidi Allen said: “No matter how tough the going gets, principle, integrity and standards matter. Without those, what’s left?”
Reports suggest two unnamed MPs were also instructed to break their pairs, but ignored the order after seeking further advice.
The Conservative Party did not deny the allegations.
Downing Street said Mrs May still had full confidence in Mr Smith.
Asked if the PM stood by her comments that the pact had been broken in error, a spokeswoman replied: “Yes, absolutely.”
Yesterday, Ms Swinson said: “This reflects pretty badly on those peddling the ‘honest mistake’ nonsense.
“To be fair, hats off to the two MPs who told their chief whip to take a running jump when he asked them to break a pairing just because the govt might lose.”
The Lib Dems called for the Chief Whip, who normally does not speak in parliament, to make a statement to the House, claiming the Conservatives had “clearly broken the pairing convention and possibly misled Parliament in calling the vote ‘a mistake’.”
SNP Westminster leader Pete Wishart asked in the Commons for a full inquiry into the breakdown of pairing. Challenging the Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom in parliament yesterday, the Labour MP Wes Streeting said “the idea that pregnant women and new mothers will be cheated out of their vote and representation to save the skin of this shambolic Government is an absolute disgrace and an affront to the House.”
There is no formal parental leave system for MPs. A report by the cross-party Commons procedure committee has already set out how one could be set up, including proxy voting for parliamentarians who are absent after giving birth or through illness, but no action has been taken yet.
Ms Leadsom said there would now be a debate on proxy voting, which would end the need for pairing, in September.
A Conservative spokesman said: “We have apologised for the fact that a pregnancy pairing arrangement was broken in error this week. “No other pairs offered on the Trade Bill on Tuesday were broken.”