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Jo Swinson: MP on maternity leave accuses Government of ‘cheating’ after senior Tory breaches voting agreement

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 18/07/2018 Chloe Chaplain

Senior Conservatives have apologised after being accused of “cheating” during knife-edge Brexit votes by breaking a pact with an opposition MP on maternity leave.

Tory chairman Brandon Lewis "paired" with Liberal Democrat deputy leader Jo Swinson, meaning neither would vote in order to even out the fact she was absent on maternity leave.

But the Tory MP breached the agreement and took part in two crunch Commons votes on Tuesday night to help Theresa May narrowly avoid a damaging defeat on Brexit trade plans.

Chief Whip Julian Smith apologised and said Mr Lewis was ordered to vote “in error" and Mr Lewis said it was an "honest mistake" made by the whips in "fast-moving circumstances".

a man sitting in front of a fence: Brandon-Lewis-.jpg © Provided by Independent Print Limited Brandon-Lewis-.jpg
Breach: Tory Party Chairman Brandon Lewis voted despite agreeing not to (Getty Images)

But Ms Swinson slammed the move and said it was "neither honest, nor a mistake" and the Government's response was "not credible".

The pairing system operates by making sure that if an MP on one side of an argument is unable to vote, an opponent also sits out the division to even it out.

Ms Swinson shared a text message from Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom revealing that Mr Lewis had been paired with her.

But Parliament records show that Mr Lewis, who had missed earlier votes, took part in the two crunch divisions on the Trade Bill.

A furious Ms Swinson tweeted Mrs May asking: "Just how low will your Government stoop? Desperate stuff."

Accusing the Tories of "cheating", she said it was a "calculated, deliberate breaking of trust" by the Government whips to "win at all costs".

She added that the Government's response to discrimination against pregnant women and new mums had been "shockingly poor", so "perhaps it should be no surprise they treat MPs on [maternity] leave like this".

Shadow women and equalities minister Dawn Butler said it was an "absolutely appalling move".

The Government avoided defeat by just six votes over an amendment which could have required the UK to join a customs union after Brexit if a trade deal was not in place by January.

Ms Swinson gave birth to her son Gabriel on June 29.

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Mr Lewis told her: "I'm sorry Jo. I think it was an honest mistake made by the whips in fast-moving circumstances."

Mr Smith also apologised for the mistake and said he had spoken to his Lib Dem counterpart Alistair Carmichael about it.

Jo Swinson holding a sign posing for the camera © Provided by Independent Print Limited
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