Critics are accused of hysteria

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Critics of the Commons home affairs committee decision to reject a ban on the domestic possession of handguns - including the Association of Chief Police Officers - were being hysterical, Tory chairman Sir Ivan Lawrence said yesterday.

Snatching a break from a London court hearing in which he was sitting as Recorder, the backbench QC judged that his critics were "talking out of the back of their heads". It was a typically robust and forthright response from Sir Ivan, one of the most resilient and thick-skinned men in the House. One Labour MP who has watched him closely over recent years describes him as a "mega-workaholic".

Some Tory colleagues are surprised that a man of Sir Ivan's undoubted ability had never been a minister. Nevertheless, Sir Ivan has proved there is a role and a political purpose on the back benches. And he has filled it in a way that will please many of his backbench colleagues on the guns issue.

For most Tories, it is taken as read that the gun lobby - like the hunting, farming, big and small business lobbies - have to be deferred to, which is why the Government wants to hide behind Lord Cullen if a guns crackdown is required in the wake of Dunblane.

Once upon a time, at a private lunch party held by Alastair Goodlad, now Chief Whip, perennial rebel Alan Clark turned up wearing an anti-hunting tie. During the meal, Mr Goodlad became so incensed that he picked up a pair of scissorsand cut off Mr Clark's tie at the knot. It was a jolly jape, but it also tells us much about the nature of the Tory hunt - and where its loyalty lies.

For the Tories on the home affairs select committee, the point would not have needed making. No caucus would have been necessary for John Greenway, MP for the Yorkshire constituency of Ryedale; Warren Hawksley, MP for Halesowen and Stourbridge and owner of a country house hotel near Welshpool; Dame Jill Knight, doyenne of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee; and Walter Sweeney, MP for the most marginal Vale of Glamorgan.

The one hope of Tory defection on the committee, which has an in-built one-vote Tory majority, was David Ashby, libel case loser and one of the few Tory MPs to have been deselected by his local party. In the event, Mr Ashby was so independent-minded that he went with the pack.

That left Chris Mullin, the Labour author of the handguns ban amendment, facing guaranteed defeat.