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In The Guardian on July 19 2018 I found this under the headline "Tory MP casts doubt on claim pairing breach was honest mistake as row escalates - Politics live".

Up to five Tory MPs were told to break pairs on Tuesday, Sun claims

According to a story by Tom Newton Dunn in the Sun, as many as five Conservative MPs who were paired on Tuesday night were asked by the chief whip, Julian Smith, to break the pair and vote regardless. The paper quotes an unnamed MP who was involved as saying:

Julian told me I was needed and told me to come in and vote. Of course he knew I was paired. I didn’t vote and honoured my pair, and he demanded to know why not afterwards. It then appears Julian told the prime minister it was all an innocent mistake ... What happened was unacceptable. We cannot behave like this.

In the event only one Conservative, the party chairman Brandon Lewis, did break a pair. Theresa May, Smith, Lewis and Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the Commons, have all claimed this was an innocent mistake.

As a continental European, I have no idea what a pair/pairing is exactly, other than some sort of Gentlemen Agreement. What is it intended for? Have breaches occurred in the past and what were the consequences?

  • Note that this isn’t limited to the UK at all. I know that it is used in Germany, too, where it’s also called Pairing, and in Sweden, under the name kvittning. Most likely there will be many more countries making use of it. – chirlu Jul 19 '18 at 18:08
  • @chirlu - Related. – indigochild Jul 19 '18 at 19:08
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    Used in the US as well, under the same name. – John Feltz Jul 19 '18 at 22:46
  • This is mainly relevant in countries where there is no system for an MP to send a replacement when ill or pregnant. – gerrit Jul 20 '18 at 17:02
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It is when two members from opposite parties agree not to vote when the other is absent.

pairing is an informal arrangement between the government and opposition parties whereby a member of a Legislative body agrees or is designated by the party whip to be absent from the chamber or abstain from voting while a member of the other party needs to be absent from the chamber due to other commitments, illness, travel problems, etc.

Intention

It is a courtesy to allow members to be absent without affecting non-critical vote counts

The member that needs to be absent from their chamber would normally consult with his or her party whip, who would arrange a pair with his counterpart in the other major party, who as a matter of courtesy would normally arrange for one of its members to act as the pair.

Breaches

The Wikipedia article also lays out several breaches or suspensions of pairing by country, for example:

In 1976, the Conservatives broke off pairing after accusing the Labour whips of bringing in an MP who was supposed to have been paired off.

and

pairing lost trust again in the 2017 parliament. In June, Labour MP Naz Shah was controversially pushed through the lobby in a wheelchair, still under the impact of morphine, claiming that pairing was not offered, which was denied by the Conservative government.

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    I didn't know about this. I'm heartened that it's generally honoured. LOL at the thought of the USA adopting an honour-based system like this. – Max Williams Jul 20 '18 at 8:20
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    @MaxWilliams the US has it too en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – Matthew Lock Jul 20 '18 at 9:06
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    @MatthewLock certainly it has been known to exist but the contrast in the extent it is relied upon is still quite extraordinary. Compare the outraged response to the notion that Shah had no way to exercise her right to a vote without attending in person; with the standing ovation given to John McCain for attending the motion to debate the healthcare bill, with barely a first thought for the fact that any of the Democrats or the defecting Republicans could have saved him the trip out of hospital and voted present on honor. – Will Jul 20 '18 at 10:55
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    Pairing is not usually an ad-hoc setup for a single vote. For example Diane Abbott was paired on a long term basis with Jonathan Aitken (which is an across-the-aisle friendship only marginally less astonishing than that between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness). – Martin Bonner Jul 20 '18 at 12:21
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    @MaxWilliams since then, McCain's attendance has become a significant narrative factor in close Senate votes though. Here the Governor of his state says "I wish that he could go back there and vote" without any suggestion that he could avoid either resigning or ceding influence on the vote by arranging a live pair. – Will Jul 23 '18 at 8:26
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Pairing is essentially an agreement between some number of parliament members to not vote on some issue(or vote a certain way) in order to have a fair balance when some members cannot vote.

For example, if a member of Party A had to be absent due to illness and thus could not cast a planned 'Yes' vote, they can be paired with a member of Party B who planned on voting 'No'. After agreeing to be paired, the Party B member would simply not show up for the vote. This means that the vote goes ahead exactly as it would have if both members had attended and cancelled out eachother's vote, and Party B does not get an unfair advantage from Party A being down a member.

Obviously, this is done with the expectation that the agreement makes the vote even, and that all parties who use pairs to even out their own past disadvantaged vote will offer to pair when the pair would take away a future advantage. Unsurprisingly, this is not always the case. Most breaches of trust seem to turn into standard political scandals since it is more-or-less an informal agreement rather than law, though on a few occasions pairing was suspended entirely due to major votes being lost.

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