Politics: A People's Prime Minister should avoid uppity natives

The Week In Westminster
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WILLIAM HAGUE breathed a huge sigh of relief after the Conservatives clung on to Eddisbury with a majority of 1,606. At 40 per cent, the Labour vote was unchanged on its showing in the general election, while the Tories mopped up most of the 1997 Referendum Party vote to increase their share to 45 per cent from 42 and a half per cent.

The result was seen by Michael Ancram, the party chairman, as a triumph after earlier speculation that things would be closer. But the Tories should be horrified that in a seat where once their votes were weighed rather than counted, they had to fight as if it were a crucial swing marginal. In every previous mid-term Parliament over the past 30 years the party in opposition has usually had no difficulty in increasing, substantially, its majorities in its heartlands. As a comparison, by this stage in Baroness Thatcher's second year as Leader of the Opposition, the Tories overturned a Labour majority of nearly 20,000 in the Ashfield by-election.

Nevertheless, a win is a win and the result draws a firm line under the internal party speculation about the future of William Hague's leadership. From the Labour perspective, the result shows no serious mid-term blues and they can be satisfied with the same level of support in prosperous middle-England that they achieved at the general election. But they lost the battle of the spin doctors to the Tories by over-reaching themselves with hints that they could win. Tony Blair got his comeuppance by foolishly going to Eddisbury, against his better judgement, and looked uncomfortable as he was drowned out by the jeers and jostled by a hostile crowd of pro- hunting supporters. Rumour has it that he subsequently gave Alastair Campbell, his press spokesman, an earful for exposing him to the mob.

Unlike Baroness Thatcher, whose journeys throughout her premiership were accompanied by rotten eggs and tomatoes, Mr Blair was unable to cope with chants of "Tony, Tony, Tony! Out, out, out!" during his Winsford walkabout. No previous prime minister has campaigned in by-elections and Mr Blair should realise that this is a protector of prime ministerial dignity which he abandons at his peril.

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BACKBENCHER OF the Week award goes to the Labour MP for The Wrekin, Peter Bradley, who used the annual debate on the summer adjournment and the cloak of parliamentary privilege to raise allegations surrounding the Tory treasurer, Michael Ashcroft, in the Commons. Tory MPs led by Sir Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire S) denounced Mr Bradley for abusing the privilege to "smear" Mr Ashcroft.

"The time-honoured principle of English law is that a man is innocent until proven guilty. We had not a single shred of evidence," said Sir Patrick.

But Mr Bradley is also settling some old scores, having himself been subjected, before he was elected, to a sustained and scurrilous muck-raking attack by the former Tory MP, David Shaw. Mr Shaw alleged that Mr Bradley had not disclosed the clients of his PR firm in the Westminster Council's register of interest when he served as a Westminster City councillor. Ironically, Mr Bradley received libel recompense from The Times, which reported the story. Mr Shaw then used parliamentary privilege to denounce Mr Bradley by repeating The Times' allegations in the Commons.

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JOHN PRESCOTT, the Deputy Prime Minister, got the government into a linguistic and parliamentary procedural muddle during his speech on the second reading of the much-vaunted Railways Bill. The legislation sets up his pet scheme for a Strategic Rail Authority which he said will "plug the lugholes in the last government's rail legislation". Words tumbled from Mr Prescott in no particular order and MPs rushed the next day to check Hansard to see whether their own lugholes were playing tricks on them. Mr Prescott's speeches test the Hansard writers to the full and they translated the lugholes into "loopholes".

Nevertheless, the Secretary of State's speeches fall far short of the most difficult sentence ever taken down, at 200 words per minute, by a shorthand writer who once had to report an MP as saying: "We believe the clause to be restrictive, ossifying, petrifying, atrophying, lapidifying, corrupting, stiff-necked, inflexible - a cretinous clause in a bunkum- filled Bill."

Under a new procedure, the Railways Bill is now to go before the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Select Committee which is allowed no more than three weeks to consider it. Tory MPs protested, late into the night, that the normal procedures of the Commons, which allow for a standing committee stage during which amendments can be debated, are being by-passed. The Speaker was drawn into the controversy and ruled that the select committee could only make recommendations about the content of the Bill.

"It does not, however, have the power to make amendments to the Bill", she said.

Tory MPs are demanding that the Bill should have another second reading in the new parliamentary session and are likely to cause more procedural trouble for Mr Prescott. He is said, however, to be "Plugging his lugholes" to such dangers.

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GERRY ADAMS (Sinn Fein, Belfast West) and Martin McGuinness (Sinn Fein, Mid Ulster), who have not taken their seats in the Commons, emerged grim- faced from Downing Street expressing their concerns for the future of the Good Friday Agreement. But minutes later they were on the Commons terrace in a relaxed mood, joking and drinking with other MPs. Although they have not taken the Oath of Allegiance and therefore do not draw their MPs' salaries, the Serjeant At Arms has been empowered to give them access to all the precincts of the Houses of Parliament available to other MPs. The terrace provided them with more convivial opportunities to meet their opponents.

Tony Benn (Labour, Chesterfield), has long campaigned for the Oath to be dropped, and an increasing number of Labours MPs believe that the peace process would be enhanced if Mr Adams could take part in Commons debates on Northern Ireland.

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