When it was pointed out earlier tonight that there would have been just about enough opposition MPs to defeat the government on the Welfare Bill if only Labour hadn't abstained, there was an instant excuse on offer from Labour apologists - namely, the pairing system. That's the arrangement by which a Tory MP will agree to stay away from a parliamentary vote if a Labour MP can't make it, and vice versa. (Although the definition of the word "can't" is often rather elastic.) I must say that seems a bloody peculiar system to have in place for a vote in which only one side were whipped to turn up, and I've yet to hear from a reliable source (ie. not Iain Martin) that it actually happened. But if by any chance it did, that would in some ways be an even more damning indictment of Labour, because it implies that they don't think welfare cuts are a particularly important issue.
Pairing isn't a universal system - it generally only applies to routine votes, where both sides are more or less going through the motions. Think back to the late 1970s, when seriously ill Labour MPs were repeatedly taken in ambulances to vote late at night - there was certainly no cosy pairing arrangement in place on those occasions. There's a good reason for that, because pairing always works in the government's favour - it effectively "locks in" their majority. By contrast, suspending pairing for important votes helps the opposition, because it introduces an element of uncertainty - there's just a chance that the opposition whipping operation may be more disciplined than the government's, in which case a very small government majority (like the one we have now) might be overturned now and again. And even if defeats don't happen, it's still an excellent tactic, because repeated "emergency" situations have a morale-sapping effect on the governing party.
Question : if Labour don't think savage welfare cuts are an important enough cause to suspend pairing for, what the hell is?
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I didn't watch the Labour leadership debate on Sunday, but I've just caught up with the clip of Andy Burnham saying that he might consider having Jeremy Corbyn in his Shadow Cabinet, and it's quite clear to me that he wasn't "joking", as his campaign team later claimed. He actually had a look of total seriousness on his face. His people must have panicked afterwards and tried to repair the damage.
Burnham has form on this, because during the independence referendum he made a prize idiot of himself by saying he was frightened that he might be forced to drive on the right when coming to Scotland in future. When Alex Salmond quoted him during the first leaders' debate, he took to Twitter to use the excuse of - yes, you've guessed it - "I was only joking". STV's John MacKay even mentioned the tweet before the end of the debate, provoking much hilarity, although by that point it wasn't at all clear whether people were laughing at Salmond or Burnham.
The original comment was made in a newspaper interview, so there's no way of judging from tone of voice or facial expression whether it was intended to be taken seriously, but there was certainly no indication from the journalist that it had come across as a joke at the time.
If he's not careful, Burnham will soon become known as the Boy Who Cried Joke.