The arcane practices of Parliament have shaped the course of UK history.
In 1979, then Opposition Deputy Chief Whip Walter Harrison approached his Conservative counterpart Jack Weatherill to request he absent himself from a Parliamentary vote on the fate of the Callaghan Labour Government, after a dying Labour MP could not vote.
Weatherill’s decision to honour the request, in conjunction with Harrison’s decision to release him from his word, was brought to the masses in James Graham’s superb play This House. The Government lost by one vote and, as a consequence, 18 years of Conservative governments were ushered in by the ensuing General Election.
Known as “pairing”, the system by which MPs can excuse themselves from Parliamentary votes by matching with an MP from the opposing benches and thereby preserving the Government’s majority, has no formal standing. Erskine May simply states that it “is not recognised in the procedures of the House; it is therefore conducted privately by individual Members, or arranged by the Whips of the respective parties.”
Nearly 40 years later, many political parallels are being drawn with that time. An unstable minority government dealing with pressing political challenges, the prospect of economic uncertainty and of survival possibly depending on a vote-by-vote basis. Even with the DUP confidence and supply deal, the working majority of the May Government on key divisions and legislation is just 13 votes and does not cover all challenges ministers must face. Given the political realities of the 2017-19 Parliament, pairing might once again play a central role.
However, on 2 August, the Financial Times reported that the Government could face a “gruelling autumn of parliamentary trench warfare” after failing to reach a pairing agreement with Labour Party whips. This will not pose the same existential threat that it did to James Callaghan’s Government - pairing is not usually applied to important divisions or votes of no confidence. However, a lack of pairing could potentially complicate the day-to-day work of both MPs and the Government. Parliamentarians might be required to be present in the House for every vote. Brexit Secretary David Davis, in an effort to prevent unexpected Government defeats in the Commons, has already been pulled out of the EU withdrawal negotiations in Brussels to Westminster to prevent unexpected defeats.
Most importantly, a lack of pairing would not see Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom and Chief Whip Gavin Williamson loosen their iron grip on Parliamentary business. Labour MP Chris Bryant wrote an article for the Times on 14 July in which he criticised the Government for withholding slots for Opposition Day debates and limiting the number of sitting Fridays for Private Members’ Bills to 13 over a two-year session. The Conservative Party will not elect select committee members until September, delaying the scrutiny system from getting up and running.
As Politico has pointed out, the Labour Party’s whipping operation can boast considerable experience with Opposition Chief Whip Nick Brown and Opposition Whip Mark Tami having both served in the Gordon Brown Labour Government. The Conservatives lost experienced Deputy Chief Whip Anne Milton after the General Election when she was promoted to the Department for Education. Consequently, the Opposition is feeling emboldened in its Parliamentary operations.
Sooner or later though, ministers will need to put key items up for debate and vote. It might present opportunities for both Government backbenchers and Opposition MPs to nudge the May Government’s agenda down a different path. The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman has written about how Brexit is proving to be a cross-party unifying force for MPs whose traditional party loyalties have been tested by their respective leaderships. Success for Labour MP Stella Creasy in forcing a Government U-turn on protection of abortion funding underlines how much power rests in the hands of parliamentarians.
Pairing is most famous for being a gentlemen’s agreement that political opponents felt bound by even when the stakes were high. In the modern, more divided House of Commons, the breaking down of one of its most personal conventions seems quite apt.
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Mike Indian is Political Consultant and a member of DeHavilland’s Content team, leading on infrastructure and Scottish affairs. He leads on DeHavilland's dynamic content, specifically videos and podcasts, and regularly appears in the media as a political commentator. A graduate of Lancaster University, he has worked as a freelance journalist.