Mandy Rhodes: Tories betray necessity of trust and expose desperation

Brandon Lewis (Jeff Overs/BBC/PA Wire)

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 a little more of the desperation seeping into the heart of this Government.

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

Mr Lewis was supposed to have an agreement – “a pair” – with Jo Swinson, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, who is on maternity leave, which basically cancels his vote. He ignored that agreement.

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 a devastating defeat which could have potentially triggered calls for a general election.

Regardless of whether it was a mistake or cynical design, someone is being less than straightforward 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, may seem absurd but are also the glue that helps a place founded on such ancient etiquette stay together.

And when fresh-faced recruits like Mhairi Black enter the 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 an MP being pushed into parliament in a wheelchair, heavily dosed on morphine and clutching a cardboard bowl in case she was sick, or of Durham MP 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 acts to confirm the general air of a parliamentary democracy trapped in another century.

Arcane 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 up their own rules as they go along.