Parliament: The Sketch: Grumbles of dissent rock House of common cause

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The Independent Online
IT SHOULD have all gone so smoothly. On paper, nothing could go wrong. The Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Bill - so tough, so "draconian", so focus-grouped and "targeted", so ass-kicking, so likely to impress, say, a visiting American president - was going to be made law by force majeure and no one was gonna stop it.

Labour backbenchers had their prepared questions ready, the Tory front bench had promised its support, give or take a couple of amendments, the Liberal Democrats were onside. Apart from a lot of liberal whingeing in the quality press, everyone would be warbling from the same sacred foolscap.

It all started just fine with a confident statement from Tony Blair of facts and casualty statistics about the Omagh bomb atrocity. "The whole house will join with me in voicing our condemnation ... We regard with contempt the excuses of those who try to explain it away ..."

All around the Prime Minister, burnished faces looked suitably grim, some of them it seemed only recently dragged back from Mediterranean sun-lounger and Floridan pedalo - Jack Cunningham, a phenomenal shade of burnt Seville orange, Andrew Mackay, the Tory spokesman on Northern Ireland, an alarming hue of boiling terracotta.

Everyone supported the PM - who could not when the issue is bombing and the coffins of small babies? William Thompson, MP for Tyrone and therefore the people of Omagh, offered thanks to the Army, the RUC, the paramedics, the PM, even the press for their support and received approving murmurs. Congratulatory and appreciative little hugs flew across the chamber floor towards the PM, from Hague and Ashdown and Hume - though cracks had started to appear.

What was that line in Mr Blair's introduction, about how "Our basic aim is to make it easier to achieve convictions"? As if getting a result was a stronger impulse than justice? What were the tiny guffaws that greeted his refusal to be drawn by Tony Benn into historical perspectives? "We must learn from history, but we mustn't be mesmerised by it, or live in it." I think you'll find, Tony (they seemed to say) that it's hard to live anywhere else.

Suddenly, in every congratulating voice, a grievance seemed to be sneaking in. Why, if the Irish government had kept internment on its statutes, didn't we bring it back?

David Trimble began with another "May-I-endorse-everything-that's been- said", but then veered sharply left into questions of decommissioning. Tam Dalyell spotted a tangent to the main discussion (whether Article 51 encourages the bombing of Arab countries you don't like) and shambled off down it.

Damn and blast it, the PM's face seemed to say. You hope for unity of purpose, you'd settle for a show of understanding, and you get a lot of egoists refusing to play ball. All his smooth replies about "splinter groups with no support", and "measures taken by two countries working together", sounded more to do with party politics than with Ulster. Come on, guys.

Then the balloon went up. As the Speaker called for the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, to read the Bill, Richard Shepherd (Con, Aldridge-Brownhills) launched into a spectacular, passionate denunciation of the way the whole event had been stage-managed. "What I detest is what this country will come to detest," he thundered. "All I knew about what was in this Bill, before six o'clock last night, was through spokesmen, through spin and press release." The spittle-flecked emphases were toxic with disgust, as he grew slightly incoherent.

"Has the purpose of this House changed? Should we abandon the freedom to discuss? It has almost become a House of Acceptance ... This is no way for the House to do its business."

He continued for 10 minutes like this, his voice cracking and wobbling under the strain, but the burden of his song was clear: he objected to being rushed to judgement, without time to think, to consult, to suggest amendments or talk to the Lords. He'd had enough of New Labour Bill Management.

Then Gwyneth Dunwoody (Lab, Crewe and Nantwich) joined in, supporting the splenetic Shepherd like a nice Dickensian daughter. "I think the House of Commons should give itself time to think .... We are not the repository of all wisdom. What we may think targeted and precise may be imprecise, vague and not worthy of a proper assembly."

And blow me down if Ian Paisley didn't rise up in awful majesty to agree with her. And then, mirabile dictu, so did Tony Benn. "I rise to agree with the last three speakers," he said coolly, "a most unusual combination." So the PM did achieve a level of unity between warring factions after all - but only in disparagement of his methods.

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