Shameful chief whip saga another reason for People’s Vote

by Carmen Ria Smith | 19.07.2018

The last two years have been unedifying for our political leaders, to say the least. I’ve been known to defend politicians on many occasions – they often do incredibly hard jobs in difficult circumstances. It’s a lonely battle that keeps getting harder.

But in a rather long list of embarrassing, shameful and shameless individuals over the last 24 months, Julian Smith has to come top.

The chief whip (as I write this, no confirmation of job status change) was first implicated in this horrid affair when Jo Swinson MP – off on maternity leave with her three-week old child – announced that Brandon Lewis MP had broken their pairing arrangement during key Brexit votes.

“Pairing” of MPs is done to mitigate against our creaking UK parliamentary system, since the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, is refusing to allow proxy voting as a way of allowing MPs off-site to take part in votes. MPs are therefore partnered to ensure that a missed vote due to unforeseeable circumstances  – for instance if an MP is incredibly ill or off on maternity leave – is cancelled out by an MP on the opposing side not voting. It’s way of maintaining fairness and integrity in our UK parliamentary democracy.

Much grimacing and public apologising ensued. Lewis said that it was an administrative error and was the responsibility of the Whips office. Smith himself made it clear it was an “error” and a “mistake”.

So far, so normal. Incompetence runs amok in this government in the same way that Theresa May used to run through fields of wheat. Just ask our former foreign secretary.

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But then overnight stories began appearing which suggested something far more sinister at play. Not only had Smith known about Lewis breaking his pairing, but he had ordered it. More than that, he had allegedly harangued multiple Conservative MPs to do the same and then lied about it.

In these febrile times, UK parliament is deadlocked. The UK government is impotent, and barely able to hold together a coalition of the unwilling and unimpressive. As James Graham’s celebrated play on the minority Labour government, ‘This House’, showed us, desperate times for governments call for desperate measures in the whips office.

But there’s something particularly heinous about a male chief whip using his power over another male MP to essentially disenfranchise a new mother in her vote. At the very least it shows a tin ear to the gender politics of the awful situation women MPs find themselves in. And probably something far worse.

There’s a wider point to this as well. There’s a reason for his duplicitous desperation. In a minority government trying to pass controversial legislation, government whips get desperate. It’s clear that there simply isn’t a majority for any kind of Brexit, let alone May’s car crash of a Chequers plan.

That’s why we need a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal. Everyday, more and more people are coming to the same conclusion. That elected politicians won’t be able to get us out of this mess of their own making – only the British public can.

I’m part of For our Future’s Sake, a youth and student-led group, part of the People’s Vote campaign. Students and young people have the most to lose from Brexit, and will suffer the consequences for the longest. This sorry saga shows that this government doesn’t appear to care about young people’s futures, or women’s rights.

I can only hope that in two years time, we’re talking about the steps we’ve taken to modernise our democracy, not how our Parliament failed us in modern times. For a Parliament that is accessible, inclusive and encourages diversity – and definitely not one that undermines women MPs.

Carmen Ria Smith is a spokesperson for FFS and former Deputy President of NUS Wales.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

5 Responses to “Shameful chief whip saga another reason for People’s Vote”

  • This is an old story my mother read to me once, I wish I knew where it came from:

    The rattlesnake was at the foot of the rickety bridge with wide gaps in the planks. He couldn’t cross unaided. A small girl came along to cross the bridge to school. The snake begged her to pick him up and place him in her bag and take him to the other side. The girl protested, “But you’ll bite me!” The snake assured and then promised her he wouldn’t, and the girl agreed and picked him gently up and placed him in her bag. She crossed the bridge and opened her bag on the other side to gently lift him out. At that point the snake struck and savagely bit her! The girl cried, “but you promised you wouldn’t bite me!”

    The snake replied, “but you KNEW what I was when you picked me up…”

    Know your Tories…

  • @Phil

    By “the vote for the uneducated was to leave the EU”, perhaps you mean that the uneducated were supposed to vote to leave the EU. Analyses of the referendum result suggest that that was roughly what happened – it seems that the more that people knew about the likely complications and costs for the UK involved in leaving the EU, the less likely they were to vote for it. Call me elitist if you like, but that seems to me like a good reason to discount the first, narrow vote.

    If you still think that the UK should leave the EU, you had better explain how that can be done in a sustainable way. You can do that in a People’s Vote.

  • One cannot but help feeling sorry for May. She is trying to square a circle and reconcile the impossible. What she is doing though s leading to the cliff edge where we will fall in the brekshit. Not turds but something more liquid and glutinous. We will not be able to swim but only go through the motions

  • Phil, I’m sure you’ll agree that the eventual deal on offer will look very different to what was promised (explicitly or by omission) in 2016. But you seem very sure that it would still be “the Will of the People”. So what are you afraid of?

    You claim to have faith that the appetite for the eventual deal will equal the former appetite for ‘quite literally anything but the status quo’. I believe that whatever mess of compromise and capitulation eventually emerges, it will satisfy nobody – except perhaps the future historians who will use it as a negative example. Why don’t we put those claims to the test, when we actually have two well-defined scenarios to make it an equal contest?