The Londoner: Whips under fire over pairing chaos

Twisting screws: Chief Whip Julian Smith: (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images): Getty Images

How far did Chief Whip Julian Smith go to twist the screws in last night’s crucial Brexit vote? Sources in the Commons say Smith put “undue pressure” on MPs to break long-honoured “pairing” rules to secure the Government’s position. He and his deputy, Chris Pincher, were in “meltdown” and “panicking” over the close vote, we are told.

Brandon Lewis, Conservative Party chairman, was forced to apologise after voting on the customs union amendment, despite being paired with Lib-Dem deputy leader Jo Swinson. He said it was a “mistake”. Swinson has just given birth and wa unable to vote. Under the system, partie agree to pair MPs wit opposing positions so that if one is absent the other abstains.

After learning her pair had voted, Swinson tweeted: “Andrea Leadsom assured those of us who were pregnant that we would be paired when necessary.”

Lewis in his apology claimed the mistake was made “by the whips in fast-moving circumstances”.

Amid the drinking on the terrace and the ringing of division bells, MPs were said to be “extraordinarily desperate”. A source said: “The terrace is right on the Thames which gave us a feeling of being aboard the Titanic.”

But if Smith was pressuring MPs to break pairing arrangements, Lewis’s “mistake” doesn’t look so honest. This morning a source at the Lib-Dems told us: “I heard the rumour that MPs were put under pressure. It’s extremely unlikely that it was an accident.”

Anna Soubry also appeared to implicate the whips, saying Lewis “would not knowingly break a pair”. Asked about allegations against Smith, a source in the Whips Office told us: “I don’t know that he definitely was doing that, I haven’t managed to speak to them.”

Pairing has a chequered history. It was suspended in 1996 after claims that the Conservative government cheated by doubling up its pairs — cancelling two opposition MPs for every one Tory. More recently, Labour’s Naz Shah MP was pushed through the lobby in a wheelchair claiming she was not offered a pair by the Conservatives.

Claudia mans the sunbed barricades

Claudia Webbe, of Labour’s National Executive Committee, gloated about the Tories being in chaos last night, while Labour had “completed another marathon full day of NEC meetings putting our house in order on all things… as we build a mass movement for change”. Stirring stuff, but the tweet gives its posting location as St Lucia. A Labour lag tells me that it is possible to take part in NEC meetings by phone. Was the Corbynite relaxing by a pool while discussing the revolution? Nothingis too good for the workers.

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A surprise punter at the Old Fountain in Old Street: the Governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, with his wife, Pam, and a Veep-style entourage. They pulled pints, joked about the absence of protest balloons and said they’d like to stay on in London now that Trump had gone. Says a regular: “It was so random.”

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Sergei Skripal, the Russian double agent poisoned with Novichok, was a regular at Dacha: The Russian Shop on Cornwall Road in Waterloo. Skripal bought sausages and pickled cabbage “once or twice a month”, according to the SE1 community website. Sadly, say the owners, it’s shutting. “We are closing down on August 1.”

Shoreditch hosts a pop-up shark shack, blue gin and a rock 'n' roll star

Shark shack: Philip Colbert, DJ Henri and Charlotte Colbert: (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images) (Dave Benett/Getty Images)

Artist Philip Colbert was snapped posing inside the mouth of a shark last night. He was attending the launch of the Shark Shack opening, a pop-up store designed by Colbert. The artist — Zac Goldsmith’s brother-in-law — punned that today’s political environment looked like “shark-infested waters”. The event, held at Old Spitalfields Market, was in celebration of Discovery’s Shark Week.

Elsewhere, Bombay Sapphire’s party was also happening in Shoreditch. Model Erin O’Connor told us she attended the Trump protest last weekend: “I wanted to see what is was. It’s a bit of history, isn’t it?”

Actor Douglas Booth said he had just finished filming the new Mötley Crüe biopic, The Dirt: “It took it out of me. I had to learn the bass guitar,” he said. “I’m going to take the summer off because I don’t think the rock-star life is for me.”

SW1A

Absent: Vince Cable: (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Vince Cable was collared by Labour bruiser Neil Coyle on his way from the Terrace during one of last night’s big EU votes. “Need any help finding your way to the voting lobbies?” asked Coyle of the Lib-Dem leader, who missed the key vote on Monday night when Brexiteers won by just three. It emerged today that Cable was attending a talk on how to stop Brexit.

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Is Theresa May in need of a stiff drink after last night’s crucial Brexit votes? No shortage of it at Downing St says ex-head of broadcast Tom Swarbrick: “There’s a cupboard in No 10 which, at the very back, has a few half-drunk old Merlots in it.” Acid.

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Eagle-eyed Labour MP Conor McGinn spotted a sign pasted on the door of an out-of-order toilet reading in Portcullis House: “If we can’t fix a toilet in six weeks, what are our chances of negotiating Brexit in eight months? Just asking.”

Quote of the Day

'The likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg are running our country' - Anna Soubry blasts the Brexiteers this mroning after last night's Government victory on leaving the customs union

45-second warning?

Publicist Alan Edwards was reminiscing about his former client, David Bowie at Mortimer House last night. Edwards recalled when Bowie was presented with a Brit Award by former PM Tony Blair in 1996. Behind the scenes, Edwards and Alastair Campbell “squeezed into this phone box and wrote Blair’s speech on a fag packet”. Unfortunately, the “wooden” rush job was not their finest work. More successful were their efforts claiming Bowie backed Blair for PM, although “he wasn’t that interested in politics”, as Bowie did visit Blair at Chequers after his election. Edwards says he sometimes impersonated Bowie in phone interviews because the singer found them “boring”. “I knew his spiel. Not one single person picked up on it."