‘Like partridges in February’: parliamentary pairing in the reformed Commons

In 1832 parliamentary reformers fondly hoped that the need to satisfy the demands of a larger electorate might spur MPs to attend more closely to their parliamentary duties. However, one way of avoiding long hours in the Commons was for MPs to ‘pair’ with Members from the opposite side of the House and absent themselves from divisions without disadvantage to either party. The practice was thought to have begun in the time of Cromwell, although it was never recognised by the House and remained an informal verbal contract either made privately or, more commonly, through the office of the party whips.

As attendance at divisions generally declined in the decade after the Reform Act objections were raised to pairing. Even when the opening of a parliamentary session required parties to rally their strength to present an imposing front as many as one third of the Members might be absent. The situation could be worse by mid-session. For example, in June 1840 MPs voted by 208 to 197 against postponing the second reading of the politically controversial Irish registration bill, yet 222 MPs were reported to have paired, and well before that session ended the Spectator complained that in effect the Commons was already ‘self-prorogued’. Divisions on unresolved questions such as the ballot saw the number of MPs who paired almost outweigh those who voted. Lax attenders like the Montgomery MP, John Edwards, argued that pairing on such questions ‘had precisely the same effect’ as voting, although critics countered that before recording an opinion MPs ought to be present to hear the arguments on which it was formed.

By 1843, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper commented, pairing had become as common as ‘the noise of a train upon a railroad’, the Spectator adding that the ‘pairing-time’ of the country’s MPs was as certain as that of ‘the linnet and thrush’. However, defenders of the practice insisted that it was essential for MPs to maintain contact with the outside world while the House was sitting. Pairing most commonly took place towards the end of the week or for a few hours at dinner time, when the lobby looked ‘more like a betting-ring’ than a legislative chamber, as MPs crowded around the party whips with their pairing books. In practice MPs usually applied to the opposition whip to find them a pair and it was said that as many as a hundred could be accommodated within a half hour, thus allowing these ‘enviable fellows’ to seek ‘pleasure or repose’ while their colleagues suffered the infliction of the ‘nightly talk’.

Pairing in the Commons, Penny Illustrated Paper, 27 Feb. 1864

As well as pairing on particular questions, or simply as a precaution against an unexpected division, Members were allowed to pair for weeks or even months at a time. Ill health could be one reason for seeking a pair, but it sometimes stemmed from happier circumstances. The Wexford Independent reported in 1836 that Wexford’s ‘patriotic and honourable representative’, Charles Walker, had paired off ‘for a short period’ in order to go on honeymoon. The discomfort of crossing the Irish Sea in January led some Irish Members to pair for the early weeks of the session, while MPs eager to leave London in the heat of summer tended to pair off ‘like partridges in February’. Pairing for extended periods was particularly disliked in Liberal constituencies, where it was assumed that Conservative MPs would never miss an important party division if it could be avoided. Therefore in 1837 the Morning Chronicle warned ‘hale but indolent Reformers’ against pairing off with ‘bed-ridden Tories’, and in 1840 a Dublin newspaper suggested that the constituencies should insist on pairing ‘not being exercised – except in extreme circumstances – at all’. Consequently when two Irish Liberals left Westminster without pairs prior to a crucial vote on the registration bill that April, Daniel O’Connell publicly challenged each of them to explain their absence to their constituents.

Morning Chronicle, 8 Mar. 1834, report of the pairs on a division regarding the use of press gangs for naval recruitment

Although pairing was informal, Hansard recorded the names of pairs in some of the early divisions of the reformed Commons, and while they never appeared in the official division lists, published from March 1836, they were often printed in newspapers following important divisions, the information presumably coming from the whips’ pairing books. Because the practice was founded on trust, and could only be rescinded by mutual consent, it was rare, at least by the 1860s, for MPs to break their pairs even by accident, and never ‘by design’. Therefore, while he was aware of ‘old legends of tricks being played by the whips’, Sir Edward Knatchbull Hugessen recalled in 1866 that only two such misunderstandings had occurred during his six years as a Liberal whip. There were, however, sometimes discussions between the rival whips about the parameters of pairing. After 25 Conservative MPs who had paired for the night of the 21 March 1887 voted the following morning, it was subsequently agreed that ‘a pair for the night meant a pair for the whole sitting’, clarifying the terms of a long-standing parliamentary practice that continues in a modified form to this day.

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