As Dominic Raab headed to Brussels for his first meeting with Michel Barnier since his appointment as Brexit Secretary, all eyes were on the drama unfolding in Westminster. Theresa May's Chief Whip Julian Smith found himself in hot water over a pairing arrangement that went wrong in this week's crunch customs union vote.
On Tuesday, Jo Swinson was quick to cry foul after the Liberal Democrat MP discovered that Brandon Lewis – Tory party chairman – voted with the government on two crunch amendments. The problem? As Swinson has just given birth, she was supposed to be on a pairing arrangement with Lewis which meant neither would vote – and it would thereby cancel out their absences. Initially both Lewis and Smith said it was an honest mistake and apologised to Swinson. However, the Times reports that Smith actually urged three Tory MPs to abandon 'pairing' arrangements before the knife-edge vote on Tuesday.
Smith's allies say that while he did consider telling any MPs on short term pairs to vote even though they weren’t meant to – he never had any intention of breaking long-term pairs assigned to MPs on parental leave. It follows that Smith is sticking by his previous account that it was cock-up rather than conspiracy that led Lewis to break the arrangement.
Will Smith survive this? The problem he faces is that this is a Brexit story with a human interest element and the optics are just awful: he is accused of deceiving a new mother in order to advance his party's Brexit plans. What's not helping an already terse situation is that Smith isn't hugely popular within the party. His approach has upset Brexiteers and Remainers alike. It's noticeable that his colleagues haven't been that helpful to his cause in their comments today.
Despite all this, Theresa May insists that she has full confidence in her Chief Whip. Even if Smith does survive this, it's safe to assume that the government will have even greater difficulty trying to whip the party in future. If trust is lost in pairing arrangements, it's the governing party in a hung Parliament that will suffer the most. Theresa May's bad week has just got worse.