It has never been more important to dispel the idea that politicians are living on another planet making and breaking their own rules

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 23 July 2018 in Comment

The view of sick and heavily pregnant MPs having to turn up to vote confirms the air of a parliamentary democracy trapped in another century

Scandals have ripped through Westminster over the last decade and more, leaving trust in the Mother of all Parliaments at an all-time low.

But last week the electorate, already inured to the ongoing self-harm inflicted on it by a Tory Party tearing itself – and us – apart over Brexit, was treated to yet another unedifying spectacle which revealed the desperation at the heart of this chaotic government.

And while the vote cast last week by the Tory chair, Brandon Lewis, MP, against an amendment to ensure that Britain stays in the customs union, didn’t matter in the end – the government won by six votes – he shouldn’t have done it.

Lewis was supposed to have an agreement – ‘a pair' – with Jo Swinson, MP for East Dunbartonshire and deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, who has a three-week old baby and is currently on maternity leave, which basically cancels his vote, and he ignored it.

The non-voting pact was honoured all the way through the day until it came to two knife-edge Brexit amendment votes when Lewis then voted with the government to save it from what could likely have been a devastating defeat and potentially triggered calls for a general election.

Regardless of whether it was a mistake or by cynical design, someone is lying in the Tory party about what happened and why.

And while ‘pairing’ may feel, as the Lib Dem chief whip, Alistair Carmichael, described it, like a 19th century sticking plaster to cover a 21st century employment law, it has worked for decades.

Westminster is built on ritual and tradition. Gentlemen’s agreements and aged conventions, like 24-hour access to snuff, that may seem absurd when considered in the round of the 21st century but are also the glue that help a place founded on such ancient etiquette, stay together.

And when fresh-faced recruits like Mhairi Black enter that place for the first time they are right to brand the absurdities of some of those parliamentary decrees as “stupid and senseless”.

After all, in a place where you’re not allowed to clap like a normal person, but you can bray like a donkey, some things are undoubtedly best consigned to the past.

Indeed, amid the bewildering history of precedent and statute, it perhaps comes as a relief to some that the once illegal act of dying in the House has now been lifted.

But the sight of a Labour MP being pushed into parliament in a wheelchair, heavily dosed on morphine and clutching a cardboard bowl in case she was sick, or a heavily pregnant Jo Swinson having to turn up to vote despite being two days past her due date or of Labour’s Laura Pidcock shuffling through the voting lobbies despite being eight months pregnant and in acute pain from her baby pressing on her sciatic nerve, only act to confirm the general air of a parliamentary democracy trapped in another century.

Arcane Westminster traditions only reinforce the impression that politicians are detached from reality. And if the result of the EU referendum was, in part, down to the electorate feeling ignored by an out of touch political class, then never has it been more important than now to dispel that idea that politicians are living on another planet making and breaking their own rules as they go along.

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