The Government Chief Whip’s difficulties over a pairing arrangement brought back stressful memories of my time as Government Pairing Whip – the whip responsible for always having the numbers present at Westminster to see-off any rebellion by colleagues, or ambush by the Opposition.
You are at once most popular -as colleagues ingratiate themselves in the hope that you will look favourably on their slipping request- and most unpopular as others curse you having refused theirs.
Gavin Barwell, now the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, tells a tale (he definitely suffers from false memory syndrome) of overhearing me in the Whips Office on the telephone to a bereaved colleague “…I know your wife died, but you’re okay? will you be voting tonight?”
The Pairing Whip’s nightmare is when you have a close vote coming up and you get wind of a rebellion. Immediately you have to hit the phones to cancel the slips that you have already granted and get ministers overseas back to Westminster on the next flight.
Invariably I found senior secretaries of state accommodating no matter how disruptive I was being to their plans. The problem would always be with a back-bench colleague, rarely seen at Westminster, whose arrangements in Azerbaijan or wherever, were always more important than the Government’s majority.
A day or so later, by the time we actually got to the vote, and the whips had done their arm-twisting, their appeals to loyalty, or merely deploying their easy-going charm, and burned-off the bulk of the rebels, we would end up with an embarrassingly large majority to explain to a Foreign Secretary whose meetings in Washington had been abandoned.
There are three settings:
First, a one line whip, where your attendance is voluntary (we are not expecting whipped votes).
Second, a two line whip, where you are required to attend unless you have a pairing arrangement.
The system that underpinned this was a fixed long-term personal relationship between MPs on either side to pair with each other, and for one of them to stand out of the division lobby, by arrangement, when the other needed to be absent. Towards the end of John Major’s Government the pairing agreement was suspended after a breach of trust not entirely dissimilar to last week’s events. The arrangements were not restored after the 1997 election because the Labour majority was so large that they could afford to run a shift system without recourse to personal pairing, resulting in the abandonment of the two line whip.
Third, the three line whip, where your attendance is vital. Even so, as the Pairing Whip, and knowing that a minister needed to be overseas, I would approach my opposite number in the Labour Whips office and we would agree a pair with one of his own absentees. The arrangement often went wrong because it was our own administrative arrangement and instruction, not a personal undertaking by the individuals involved. One of them would find that their plans had changed and, as they were now present at Westminster anyway, they voted without thinking. I would make them write a grovelling letter of apology to the Labour pairing whip. As he did to me. Luckily, it didn’t happen on a close vote.
None of this however, explains what happened last week, for which a convincing explanation has yet to be had.