Parliament & Politics: Just like in Alice in Wonderland, `we all won'

SO WHO has won and who has lost in the great constitutional crisis between Lords and Commons? Just as in Alice in Wonderland, "we all won".

Tony Blair and the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, looked relaxed and phlegmatic by the end of the week and simply shrugged. During question time, the Prime Minister told the Tory leader, William Hague: "If he wants to end up using his hereditary majority that is a matter for him... If we go back to the old system of first past the post we will watch with delight as his candidates fight each other for selection." This was entertaining stuff but the anger appeared pretty synthetic.

Mr Hague won, as he usually does, the debating joust and now has it in his power to use his Lords majority to prevent the closed-list, Bill from becoming law in time for next year's European elections. The Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, won his argument that the Bill should be reintroduced when it looked as though Mr Blair was about to call it a day. But, unless the Tory lords get cold feet, the first-past-the-post system will prevail - as this column predicted two weeks ago.

Labour backbenchers will be relieved. Most of them hated the Bill. They can, nevertheless, use the defeats in the Lords as ammunition in their battle to abolish the hereditary peers in the new session. As Dennis Skinner said in the members' tea room: "We've stuffed PR [proportional representation]; we've stuffed the Lib Dems; we've stuffed the Lords."

FRANK FIELD thought the unthinkable when he used his new-found freedom on the Labour back benches to introduce proposals for a compulsory stakeholder pension. The concept was a buzz word that Mr Blair seized on before the election but was buried when Mr Field was sacked from his social security post in the summer.

Mr Field proposed that all those in work would be required to become members of a stakeholder pension scheme on their twentieth birthday. A guarantee would offer twice what a pensioner gets from the state retirement pension - 30 per cent of average earnings.

Mr Field is now beyond the pale so far as the Government is concerned and Labour whips were desperate to keep their MPs out of the division lobbies when, for devilment, Tory MP Edward Leigh forced a vote to "flush out from those on the government benches just how many supporters are prepared to follow the prophet down the path of pension righteousness".

Just eight defied the Labour whips, but heavyweight support came from Mr Ashdown, Tory grandee Sir Peter Tapsell and chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, David Davis.

Mr Field offered a foretaste of his menacing presence on the back benches.

BLIND LOYALTY by the robot tendency of New Labour backbenchers is not necessarily rewarded with any thanks byministers, as Chorley's MP Lindsay Hoyle found to his cost. Announcing the details of the restructuring of the Territorial Army, George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, closed the Chorley TA centre, leaving Mr Hoyle fulminating with uncontrollable rage.

Mr Hoyle has spent the whole of his career in Parliament, since he was first elected last year, slavishly doing the whips' bidding. Mr Robertson obviously decided that he would get no trouble from him, but the worm turned. "I do not believe that this is a political decision: it must be a mistake," he screamed.

The MP had to be restrained from exploding as he listened to reprieves for TA centres in other Labour MPs' constituencies.

New Labour, no thanks.

A DEBATE to appoint a new parliamentary commissioner for standards on the retirement of Sir Gordon Downey led to warm tributes all round for the latter - except from Tory MP Gerald Howarth, who launched a 40- minute tirade against him on behalf of Neil Hamilton. "I shall not join those who wish to salute the departure of Sir Gordon Downey. I do not. I think he has been a disgrace," he declared.

Mr Howarth and Sir Gordon have engaged in a war of words since Mr Howarth complained that Sir Gordon's dismissal, before the election, of Mohamed al-Fayed's complaint that the former Home Secretary, Michael Howard, had taken a pounds 1m bribe from Tiny Rowland. Mr Howarth believed Sir Gordon should have required Mr Fayed to be summoned to the bar of the House. Sir Gordon told Mr Howarth this would deter others from making complaints and asserted that Mr Howarth's views were of "total indifference" to him.

A MORE effective two fingers to Sir Gordon was the apology for an apology from the Paymaster-General, Geoffrey Robinson, who had failed to register business interests. His 54-second statement left members gasping as he escaped calls for his resignation for the third time.

PERHAPS THE best case against the Lords pushing their luck was made by former Commons arch plotter Tristan, now Lord, Garel-Jones. He reminded them of when the Thatcher government was in danger of losing a Bill because of a Labour filibuster. Lord Garel-Jones, then a whip, got the Labour Chief Whip, Michael Cocks, to call the dogs off. A Labour MP was interrupted by Mr Cocks. "But Michael, it's a bad Bill," the MP pleaded. Mr Cocks snapped: "Of course it's a bad Bill. We have a Tory government and all their Bills are bad. Shut up."

But Lord Garel-Jones is still capable of wheeling and dealing. He will have realised the cold sweat, this week, of former Tory ministers Robert Atkins, Jonathan Evans and Tim Kirkhope, whose prospects of getting on the Euro gravy train will be killed if Mr Hague's henchmen in the Lords succeed in keeping the present electoral system.

Virtually guaranteed their tickets to Europe on Mr Blair's closed regional lists because these three are at the top, they will be phoning Lord Garel- Jones for advice this weekend. If anyone can get round peers to pull back when Mr Hague tells Lord Cranborne to order them over the top it is him.

THE PROROGATION to wind up Mr Blair's first 18-month session was like a mini state opening ceremony. The Queen now rules the country until next Tuesday's State Opening by means of a Royal Commission.

The State Opening will be supposedly slimmed down on the Queen's instruction. The heralds, in doublets and hose, will now travel in an advance procession. Two gentleman ushers, a crown equerry and a lady in waiting are to miss out. Poor old Silver Stick in Waiting is also dumped. The rest of the ceremony will pass off with no noticeable diminution in pomp and circumstance still worthy of a Gilbert and Sullivan performance of Iolanthe.

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