Working in Parliament, you quickly become accustomed to its many quirks and procedural idiosyncrasies. One of those, and perhaps the most commonly recognised from the outside, is the sort of language and phraseology MPs, on the caution of the Speaker, are expected to adopt.
An example is the mandatory requirement to refer to each as other ‘honourable’ and ‘right honourable’ members. The implicit assumption in doing so is this: as an MP, however much you might disagree with the content of what the person is saying on the opposite benches (or more recently, colleagues quite possibly sat only a few yards away), you cannot call into question their integrity or motivation. In other words, play the ball, not the man.
Indeed, this is a sacrosanct principle to which great seriousness is attached. Just look at the way Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s Westminster Leader, was suspended from the Commons in 2013 for his use of ‘disorderly language.’ In plain English, that means he accused another MP – the then Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers – of being ‘deliberately deceptive’, refusing to withdraw his remarks after being requested to do so.
But given that so much time is spent on observing these polite, if not sometimes slightly obscure, parliamentary rules, how have two such deeply dishonourable events been allowed to take place in the last 24 hours alone?
First, there was the Government’s failed attempt to bring forward the summer recess. Whilst on the surface this may seem rather innocuous, it is the principle and, more importantly, the motivation, that are the problem. In short, there was absolutely no good reason to alter the long agreed recess dates other than to save the Prime Minister’s much endangered neck.
Granted, after two disastrous weeks, and with the prospect of more Government defeats and a mounting pile of letters calling for her to resign, it’s easy to see why Theresa May wanted to break up for summer early. But shouldn’t we expect more from our politicians than such a shameless exercise in self-preservation? Time is of the essence after all, with Parliament expected to have its meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal in October. Taking into account the conference recess too, that’s only a few sitting weeks away.
Perhaps more damaging, at a time of great national importance and uncertainty, and when confidence in the ability and standing of our MPs is at an all-time low, the image this brazen attempt portrays – that is, politicians shrugging their duties to finish for summer early – toxifies people’s faith in politics further. It is truly embarrassing, and thankfully, was swiftly killed off.
Crisis diverted, order was restored. That is until a very senior, experienced Conservative MP, no doubt on the instruction of his whips, failed to respect the longstanding ‘pairing’ convention which is observed by all parties. Essentially, this is a system whereby an MP who cannot be in the Commons to vote for whatever reason – illness, pregnancy, foreign travel – is paired up with an MP who would have voted the opposite way to them, meaning they cancel each other out and the parliamentary arithmetic is maintained. It’s a time honoured mechanism that relies on the good faith of all sides.
But during the course of the Trade Bill tonight, Brandon Lewis (the Conservative Party Chairman no less), voted in two crunch votes he wasn’t meant to. He had been paired with Jo Swinson, the Lib Dem MP currently on maternity leave having very recently given birth. The subsequent grovelling apologies we have seen can only be described as wholly disingenuous; Mr Lewis didn’t participate in the day’s earlier votes, but funnily enough, did on the two that really mattered. Seems more than a tad suspicious, no?
True, this foul play had no definitive impact on the final result, but is this really what politics has come to? Exploiting the absence of women, and men, on parental leave – a legal right – to help win a vote on which there was much division. Is that the way to get more women involved in politics? Does it set a good example from a Government apparently committed to clamping down on workplace inequalities? Coming on the very same day as the Leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, published an independent complaints and grievance policy to help mitigate discrimination in Parliament and change the sexist and bullying culture that tarnishes it, it is farcical.
I’m no rose-tinted optimist. There’s nothing new about the dirty, underhand tactics of the whips, nor should we be surprised at the length ‘honourable’ members are prepared to go to see this Brexit legislation through. But be in no doubt: the sort of animosity and division this is causing cannot be undone.
When it comes to politics, all is not fair in love and war. Some integrity must hold true.