LONDON – U.K. Cabinet ministers were infuriated this week by an apparent government breach of a protocol that prevents ill or heavily pregnant politicians from being forced to attend Parliament to vote, to the disadvantage of a representative currently on maternity leave.
Pro-EU Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader Jo Swinson, who is on leave from Parliament following the birth of her second son, Gabriel, on 29 June, had been paired with Brandon Lewis, chairman of the ruling Conservative party and a Cabinet minister, in a convention by which the opposing side agrees to stand down one of their own to even up the numbers if a representative is unable to attend a vote for personal reasons.
The long-standing arrangement, known as the pair, is a kind of “gentleman’s agreement,” and is seen by many as central to how Parliament works.
But instead of staying away from the House of Commons on Tuesday, Lewis voted with the government — helping Prime Minister Theresa May, who is also leader of the Conservative party, to secure a crucial victory on the U.K. leaving the European Union customs union.
The apparently underhand tactic incensed members of May’s team, including Cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom, who has spoken out in favor of helping female lawmakers balance political work and family life.
“Who is taking responsibility for failing to honour the pairing agreement?” asked another angry party member and representative, Sarah Wollaston, on Twitter. “More than just an extension of the other heavy handed tactics on display, it disrespects women and why maternity leave matters.”
Labour reacted with predictable fury, demanding that Lewis issue an apology. Eventually he did. “I’m sorry Jo,” Lewis said on Twitter. “I think it was an honest mistake made by the whips in fast-moving circumstances. I know how important the pair is to everyone, especially new parents, and I apologize.”
The chief whip also issued a statement, saying he was very sorry to Swinson for the “mistake.”
The motion, tabled Tuesday in the House of Commons, blocked an amendment put forward by rebels in the Conservative party that could have kept the U.K. within the EU customs union after leaving the bloc. It was passed by 307 votes to 301.