Even the Prime Minister’s visit to the Irish border was overshadowed by the growing row over the conduct of chief whip Julian Smith – and whether the Skipton and Ripon MP broke Parliamentary protocol over a key vote.
Though Mrs May sidestepped questions about Mr Smith’s trustworthiness, the absence of a more positive endorsement spoke volumes about a scandal which has wider resonance because it provides a human dimension to Brexit.
The reason? As part of Parliament’s longstanding ‘pairing’ arrangements, Tory chairman Brandon Lewis agreed to not vote on the Customs Bill to cancel out the absence of Jo Swinson, the Lib Dem MP, who is currently on maternity leave.
Yet, because Mr Lewis did not participate in earlier votes, the situation is murky and the absence of a convincing explanation from Mr Smith is compounded by claims that other Tory MPs were urged to disobey ‘pairing’ agreements.
Not only has there long been a case for electronic, proxy or remote voting to overhaul Parliament’s more archaic procedures – Bradford MP Naz Shah had to leave her hospital bed and suffer the indignity of being wheeled through the Commons in a recent division – but ‘pairing’ arrangements should be published on the Order Paper to avoid such disputes.
And while Mr Smith will have been under intense pressure from 10 Downing Street to ensure the Government survived a vote which was fundamental to its very survival, such conduct reflects poorly on the Prime Minister when she will have to bridge the political divide if any Brexit settlement is to be passed by Parliament.
An increasingly forlorn hope, it will only happen if Mrs May, and her team, are trustworthy – and transparent – in their dealings with all MPs. And while the PM will be reluctant to lose yet another Minister, can she, in these febrile times, afford to stand by Mr Smith? That’s her latest quandary.