Conservative Chief Whip Julian Smith is under growing pressure to explain why he ordered a Tory MP to take part in a crunch Brexit vote - despite him being paired with a Lib Dem MP on maternity leave.
The row has seen MPs on all sides of the House attack his conduct, with Tory MP Heidi Allen tweeting: “I refuse to be tarnished by this behaviour so will not stand by and say nothing. Integrity and honesty are fundamental to our democracy. Anything less is unacceptable.”
But this incident is the latest in a long line of tactics deployed by the party in government to cling on to power as they try to navigate their way through Parliament without a majority.
Eight Ways The Tories Have Torn Up Parliamentary Conventions
1) Breaking The Pairing Whip
On two crucial Brexit votes on Tuesday, Tory Chairman Brandon Lewis voted in line with the Government to help stave off a defeat. There was just one problem – under a convention known as ‘pairing’, he had promised not to.
Lewis was ‘paired’ with Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson, who is currently on maternity leave. As she could not vote, he would not either.
When it was discovered Lewis had voted, Swinson was furious, and on Twitter asked May “how low will your government swoop?”.
She added: “Don’t try any nonsense about a mistake - this is calculated, deliberate breaking of trust by govt whips @JulianSmithUK to win at all costs.
“Brandon abstained in afternoon divisions, but voted in the two crunch votes after 6pm. There’s a word for it - cheating.”
Lewis insisted it had been an error, the Tories pointed out that pairing arrangements with Labour MPs on maternity leave had been honoured.
Which leads on to number two…
2) Consequences For Misleading Parliament
Amid the uproar on breaking the pairing whip, Theresa May and Leader of the Commons Andrea Leadsom both claimed it was an “error”.
But The Times on Thursday revealed the chief whip had urged two other MPs to break the pairing arrangement ahead of the crunch vote. Both sought further advice and ignored the instruction.
The Times claims the Conservatives “did not deny the story this lunchtime”.
If true, it would mean that both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Commons misled the House – an offence which usually requires ministers to resign their position.
However, when Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey admitted she “inadvertently” misled Parliament over the conclusions of a damning report into the roll out of Universal Credit, she was able to get away with just an apology.
3) Stopped Nodding Through
Another convention torn up by this Government is that of ‘nodding through’. This applies when an MP is on the Parliamentary estate but unable to vote because they are too unwell.
MPs who are severely ill are often brought on to estate in an ambulance, where a whip for the opposition will register them as having voted.
The Tories suspended this convention in June during a vote on the Brexit Bill, meaning Labour MP Naz Shah had to be wheeled through the voting lobby with a sick bucket on her lap.
Ignoring this convention also meant heavily pregnant Labour MP Laura Pidcock had to vote, despite struggling to walk as her unborn child was lying on her sciatic nerve, while Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson also had to march through the division lobby despite being past her due date.
4) Not Giving Labour Copies Of The Brexit White Paper
Before the Government delivers a statement, it is convention for the Opposition to be given an advance copy so they can prepare a response.
This convention was ignored in July, when newly-appointed Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab appeared in the Commons to give a statement on his department’s latest white paper.
MPs on both sides of the House were furious that they did not have a copy of the document to examine, prompting Labour’s Ben Bradshaw to bring a box of reports and begin throwing them around the chamber.
Speaker John Bercow suspended the sitting for five minutes so MPs could get a copy of the white paper, and when the debate resumed, Shadow Brexit Secretary Kier Starmer was withering.
“I was handed the Secretary of State’s statement as we finished business questions. But for the point of order, it would have been as he stood up. That is in breach of the ministerial code, which suggests giving 45 minutes. It is deeply discourteous, and it is unacceptable,” he said.
5) Suspending Cabinet Responsibility Over Brexit Without Telling Anyone
After the Chequers Agreement was announced earlier this month, Theresa May sent a letter to Tory MPs stating: “Agreement on this proposal marks the point where this is no longer the case and collective responsibility is fully restored.”
The news that collective responsibility was being “restored” was a surprise, as no-one realised it had been suspended. Usually when the Cabinet is allowed to speak out against the Government line it is announced in advanced, as David Cameron did ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum.
6) Not Taking Part In Opposition Day Votes
With the Tories only having a parliamentary majority thanks to the support of ten DUP MPs, it was expected after last year’s election there would be knife-edge votes every week on key issues.
Wednesday nights were set to be particularly awkward, with Labour able to choose the matter to be voted on thanks to Opposition Day debates.
Instead of putting themselves through weekly scrapes, the Tories decided to ignore the debates – which are symbolic and have no legal force – altogether.
This saw votes on key matters pass unopposed – for example, a division on pausing the rollout of Universal Credit passed 299 to 0 in October.
7) Getting A Majority On Committees Without Having A Majority In The House
The make-up of committees which scrutinise legislation passing through the House are supposed to reflect the composition of the Commons.
This usually means that the party with the majority in the Commons has a majority on the Committees.
But the Tories changed this rule last year, after the snap election left them in the minority, and only able to get votes through with the help of the DUP.
Jeremy Corbyn called it “an unprecedented attempt to rig Parliament and grab power by a Conservative government with no majority and no mandate”.
8) Trying To Break Up For Summer Early
It’s one of those ideas that must have sounded so brilliant when it was first suggested: let’s end Parliament five days early to help diffuse the growing frustration with Theresa May’s leadership.
Of course, anyone who then carried that thought on for a further nano-second would have realised the public relations nightmare of sending MPs off on their summer holidays early.
The idea got as far as being on the Order Paper for debate on Tuesday, but by the time it came to putting it forward for a vote, the Government withdrew its support from its own plan, such was the backlash from MPs, the media, and pretty much everyone else.