The pressure exerted by Brexit on our politicians has been considerable.
Since the Chequers plan was announced, there has been talk that Theresa May will face a leadership challenge, that a snap general election is on the cards, and even that parties could split and reform along new political lines. And the stakes could hardly be higher with the country apparently on course for a no-deal Brexit which could wreck the UK economy.
But yesterday brought accusations which, if true, suggests our democratic system itself could be starting to crack under the strain.
There were claims of a “calculated, deliberate breaking of trust”, calls for the resignation of the Government’s chief whip Julian Smith and the Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis, and a note of despair from Tory MP Heidi Alexander, who said: “No matter how tough the going gets, principle, integrity and standards matter. Without those, what’s left?”
The affair began when it emerged Lewis had taken part in a close Commons vote on Brexit, which the Government won by a few votes, even though he had agreed not to vote as part of a ‘pairing’ deal with Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson, who is on maternity leave.
Theresa May explained to the Commons that this had been a simple mistake, but reports have since emerged that two other Tory MPs were told to break their pairing agreements. A text to one MP from Smith was described as “an order, not a request”. However, to their credit, the two MPs both refused to comply and stuck by the pairing agreement. The reports have not been denied, but May was said to be sticking by Smith.
The SNP, among others, called for an inquiry into what happened and, if one were to be held, May would doubtless be asked whether she had given instructions to the chief whip to tell MPs to break pairing agreements or if she had tacitly agreed to such a dishonourably strategy. She would also face questions about whether she misled the House by saying there had been a mistake. But, with no evidence that the Prime Minister was actually involved, the focus for now will be on Smith and Lewis.
Conservative MP Anna Soubry, a shining voice of reason in this fractious House, summed the situation up as eloquently as ever: “If true, this is appalling and those responsible must resign. If we cannot behave with honour we are nothing.”