IF the last few weeks at Westminster have proven anything, it’s that political scandals come in many shapes and sizes. Between strongly worded resignations, “creatively” worded sex texts, reinstatements, rebellions, reshuffles and plotting, it would be easy to forget that any actual politics had been happening. And yet, it has been some of Parliament’s most monumental decisions which have become the backdrop for one of the biggest scandals of all.

When a crucial Brexit vote concluded on Tuesday – with the government narrowly defeating an amendment to trade legislation – attention was swiftly turned to those whose disobedience from party lines had resulted in the close result. But a tweet from Liberal Democrat MP and new mother Jo Swinson quickly highlighted that the real scandal may have been those who disobeyed parliamentary democracy altogether. “Just how low will your government stoop @theresa_may?” wrote Swinson. “@BrandonLewis paired with me but voted. Desperate stuff.”

For those not au fait with the intricacies of UK parliamentary procedure, talk of whips, pairing, nodding through and the like are understandably alien. They are the strange “gentleman’s agreement” type processes which sycophantic political journalists and commentators gorge ourselves on while the general public concentrate on things that feel like they matter.

They are the antiquated leftovers of a system defined by pomp and hypothetical “British values” rather than any meaningful political action. But they are also the rules which govern those making the country’s biggest and most consequential decisions. And ironically, their breaking only serves to highlight how archaic they ultimately are.

On paper, the substance of the pairing scandal is this: an important vote which is likely to be close is scheduled; due to maternity leave or illness some MPs can’t be there; these MPs are paired with an opposing voter who is told to abstain in order to neutralise the absence; the Tory chief whip, tasked with organising the government’s votes, tells his MPs to ignore this rule; the amendment is defeated by a tiny majority in which the pairings could have made a difference.

In reality, the substance of the pairing scandal is this: Where are the structural procedures in place for maternity and sick leave? When did we agree for our parliamentary democracy to be one in which pregnant women and new mothers can be readily sacrificed in party political warfare? How are we meant to invest in our representatives when their votes are decided by a shady middleman with an absurd title rather than the principles on which they were elected?

Why is a system defined by its participants’ self-interest and ruthlessness one of the only in the country to be officially left to handshakes, hushed conversations and crossed fingers?

Of course, this pairing scandal is only the latest in a string of attempts by May’s Conservative Government to manipulate vague and labyrinthine procedure in their favour. Just last month, and conveniently also during a tight Brexit vote, Swinson was forced to vote physically by walking through the voting lobby after the Tories suspended the usual “nodding through” agreement in which those who can’t physically vote have their preference registered by a whip elsewhere on the parliamentary estate. The decision meant that Labour MPs Laura Pidcock, in severe pain during late pregnancy, and Naz Shah, who appeared using a wheelchair and with a sick bucket in her lap, were also forced to appear in person.

As with recruitment, pay gaps, promotions and more, those who lose out most from a lack of structure and a culture of opacity and informal dealings are women, the vulnerable, and the otherwise marginalised, including those experiencing pregnancy or early parenthood.

Perhaps the expectation that women appear throughout these periods to fulfil their roles might sit more easily if Parliament itself was accessible and child-friendly – but breastfeeding is still officially prohibited in the Chamber, while childcare provisions within Westminster don’t account for the long and unsociable hours associated with voting and other parliamentary business. A proposal for baby leave put forward by the cross-party Centenary Action Group has received much popular support but not yet much formal traction.

These issues scratch only the surface of an antiquated and impenetrable system which at best completely locks whole sections of the population out and at worst actively discriminates against them when they’re in.

Not only is the House of Commons still dominated by straight white men, but of the women who sit within it, 45% have no children compared to just 28% of male MPs. If Westminster is to accurately represent the communities it serves, a radical overhaul of its procedure should begin with electronic or proxy voting and not end until the multitude of barriers in the way of diverse and representative politicians have been removed.

The pairing scandal, then, matters not in spite of the insular, back-patting world it exposes but precisely because of it. It might not be surprising that there are few lengths the Tories, desperate and divided, won’t go to in order to win, but it should still be utterly enraging.

Like many a shadowy transaction or dodgy dealing, Westminster’s impenetrability is also its protection: trace things back far enough and the trail disappears; start digging into how something really, truly works and find yourself firmly ensconced down the rabbit hole – but the roots of its inequality and impropriety lie here too.

A handshake and a wink is no way to run a country or make decisions which affect the lives of its citizens.

If politicians are truly committed to the enviable British democracy they so freely espouse, modernising Parliament must be a priority.