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How will Labour react to Tory whipping debacle?

Julian Smith looks set to be left in the dark over Nick Brown's plans. Photo: PA

The big unanswered question in the pulsating story of how the Tory chief whip Julian Smith broke one voting pair by accident, Jo Swinson's, but tried and failed to break other pairs is - what happens now?

Well, the immediate consequence is literally nothing.

But that is in itself significant.

After giving birth three weeks ago, Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson was on maternity leave and so did not attend the vote. Credit: PA

Because what would normally take place on Monday is that Smith would have his regular start-of-week meeting with his Labour opposite number, Nick Brown, to plan the week's business in the Commons.

But that meeting is not happening this coming Monday.

So Smith won't find out if Brown is planning retaliatory action.

Now I am unclear whether Brown cancelled the meeting. Or whether it's not happening simply because there are only two more days till recess.

But it doesn't much matter either way.

Brandon Lewis ignored his pairing and voted. Credit: PA

Because the absence of the meeting will keep the government guessing all through the long hot summer whether Brown will suspend all pairing arrangements, come the autumn - thus making life a misery for Tory MPs, who would never then be granted leave of absence from parliament during the many important votes that are anticipated.

With their personal and family lives wrecked in this way, Tory morale would be hammered even more than it is today.

Which would be tricky for a Brexit-beleaguered PM.

There are two reasons why those close to the Labour chief whip think he will terminate pairing, even though it was the Lib Dems who were directly affected by Smith's unsporting gambit, not Labour.

Theresa May says she has confidence in Tory Chief Whip Julian Lewis. Credit: PA

First is that there will never be a session as important to the survival of a PM as this autumn's, and Labour will want to maximise the chances of votes going against her - in the hope that somehow that would prompt a general election.

Second, Smith is widely seen as an ardent May loyalist and an opponent of Boris Johnson, the recently departed foreign secretary who pretends to the Tory crown, so anything that destabilises Smith would be seen by the chief whip as mischief-making useful to Labour.

Julian Smith is widely seen as an ardent May loyalist and an opponent of Boris Johnson. Credit: PA

Or to put it another way, in unilaterally trying to ditch pairing etiquette on Tuesday night during those life-or-death votes on the trade bill, Smith put short-term government gain above long-term government stability.

As I said on Friday, Tory MPs expect Smith to pay the ultimate personal price for that.

But right now, whether or not Smith keeps his position, the PM may end up losing Commons votes, the confidence and support of her MPs and even her job.