Indignant Howard argues for fair play

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The Independent Online
Michael Howard reached into his rhetorical bag, rummaged around in the pocket marked "outrage", and and drew out a fistful of epithets and adjectives denoting shock, sadness, affront and insulted innocence.

The lot opposite were desecrating a "delicate system of checks and balances that has grown up over centuries", trampling over the "virtues of compromise and fair play", systematically "stifling discussion", "displaying contempt for decency and convention", "running contrary to the genius of the country", and planning a "tectonic change in how this nation is governed". Their behaviour was reminiscent of that of Robespierre, and "in the annals of this House there can be few who have fallen so far short" of their responsibilities as had the Leader of the House, Anne Taylor. In the public gallery there were shudders. But several schoolboys smiled wickedly, "indecent and unconventional! Sounds like my kinda government!"

To ragged Tory cheers, a tired but happy Mr Howard subsided back on to the bench that he shared with leadership rival William Hague. Hague, dressed in identical suit, pinkish shirt and red and blue-spotted tie sportingly saluted Howard's speech. "Hear, hear!" he said very, very quietly.

Perhaps his mind, like ours, had ranged back over the years. He may have recalled how much Margaret Thatcher had loved compromise and courted convention, or how the "checks and balances" of local government and voluntary associations (like trades unions) had been attended to. So he may have concluded that listening to Mr Howard complain about his treatment was like hearing cries of "rape!" and "murder!" coming from death row at Alcatraz on hair-clipping day.

The former Home Secretary's target was, of course, the tyrannical new Labour government which - unsated by its tampering with the million-year- old tradition of two 15-minute Prime Minister's Questions - was now imposing a guillotine on the discussion of the Bill to hold referendums in Scotland and Wales. But there was something not quite right about his indignation. First, only 40 or so Tories had turned up to witness the fightback against Stalinist tyranny. Second, when asked by Labour's John Home Robertson how many of his Folkestone constituents had written to him about Scottish devolution, Mr Howard replied (after careful thought and a passing, awful vision of Anne Widdecombe) that he had mentioned the issue in his election campaign. In other words, none.

Tam Dalyell rose from his green cushion, and the House immediately fell silent. Was he about to put the boot into his own party; to warn Cassandra- style against hubris? Nope. Mad Tam had no sympathy with the Opposition, who had allowed the order paper to be "cheapened by the fluff of frivolous amendments".

I looked, and Tam was right. There were more than 200 amendments; amendments such as that put down by Euro-obsessive Bill Cash, wishing to insert in the Bill references to the Succession to the Crown Act 1707, the Princess Sophia's Precedence Act of 1711, the Wales Act of 1535 and several more. Tabled by anyone other than Cash this was an obvious filibuster. Tabled by Cash you couldn't be sure that it wasn't just sad. But then Tam raised his own question. On the government frontbench those with long memories recalled how - nearly two decades before - Tam's Lothian question had scuppered the last, glorious Labour government. But that was then and this is now; Tam instead asked the Gary McAllister question. And that is - as everyone knows - a much easier question to answer.