MPs' riverside parties banned by Speaker

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The Independent Online
DOWNING STREET has quashed a backbench revolt against the Speaker of the House of Commons over the use of Parliament's riverside terrace on New Year's Eve.

Backbenchers who wanted to use the terrace to view the millennium celebrations with their families and constituents are fuming that Betty Boothroyd has banned all MPs from the Commons after 6pm.

But MPs became incensed when they learnt that the Commons would, however, be open for two private parties being held by the Speaker herself and Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor. They both have apartments in the Palace of Westminister.

One senior backbench MP said: "I'd planned to treat my family and some disabled constituents. All we wanted to do was walk in, stand on the terrace and then walk out again when the fireworks were over."

However, when Labour MPs queried the Speaker's ruling they were told to back down. A senior Labour source said the MPs had been told that the Government was more concerned about "getting Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness into the Commons to help the peace process than whether they had a good view of the fireworks".

If the Government's plans to allow Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness into the Commons are to be fulfilled, Ms Boothroyd has to be on side. One source said: "We think we have squared her on the issue but we didn't want any unnecessary antagonism."

Meanwhile, the Speaker's spokesman was adamant she had taken the right decision on the grounds of safety, expense and consideration of the staff of the Commons. He said: "The Speaker thought it was only right the staff spent New Year's Eve with their families."

But the Government faces a potentially even bigger problem on Millennium Eve: it might have a party-pooper in its midst. As Peter Mandelson, Chris Smith, Robin Cook and Mo Mowlam prepare to toe the party line and attend the Dome celebrations, one senior Cabinet minister is resisting. John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, has infuriated organisers by refusing to decide whether he will attend the event or not.

"He might go, he might not," snapped a spokesman at the Department of the Environment, Trade and the Regions.

Mr Prescott's reaction has puzzled the Dome's organisers, who are keen to finalise security arrangements for the night. "It does seem a bit odd," said a source at the New Millennium Experience Company. "We need to know the VIP list in advance. I expect he's had a lot of invitations, but none can really rival the Dome. Anyone who's anyone will be there."

A Labour backbench MP even questioned the political wisdom of boycotting the Dome. "It does seem strange," he said. "I can't think this will earn him any brownie points with Tony Blair.

"There's practically a three-line-whip on attendance at the Dome celebrations. What's more, all his political rivals will be there. It may be that he knows something we don't about the transport links to the Dome."