Politics: Blair alters noble principle to read: one man, one veto

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The Independent Online
WHEN PADDY Ashdown gave his speech to his party conference, he asked a question of his new friend, Tony Blair: was the Prime Minister a control freak or a democrat?

This week saw the Prime Minister give his reply. Omov (one man, one vote), the great cause of the Labour right in recent years, was simplified down to one man, one veto.

In London, the Prime Minister dispatched his henchmen to block Ken Livingstone from running for London's mayor. Meanwhile, in Wales, the gloves came off as an exasperated Alun Michael failed to persuade Rhodri Morgan from standing down as candidate for the post of First Minister. Mr Michael and his cohorts are plumbing new depths in political chicanery by making the leadership campaign last indefinitely to burn off and arm-twist supporters of Mr Morgan.

Rather than making capital out of these Stalinist tendencies, William Hague seems to be catching the disease. In a fit of pique he phoned up Michael Portillo to slap him down for writing an article which forgot to mention Mr Hague's great leadership (an easy thing to forget). This will backfire. Mr Portillo has no official role in the Tory party and will make Mr Hague regret these attempts to limit his freedom to speak and write as he thinks fit.

WHILE PADDY Ashdown wallows in his glory as Tony's newest crony, the speculation mounted, in the corridors, as to what crumbs would drop from the cabinet table on to the Liberal Democrat mat. A tangible prize of patronage is being sought to placate their uneasy backbenchers. Certainly Alan Beith, the deputy leader who celebrates 25 years in Parliament this week, looked increasingly cheerful as his name was touted as the next Speaker.

Reaction in the Commons to the deal was scathing, however. Dennis Skinner was less than fraternal, reminding MPs that the last pact, in the 1970s, ended in tears when the Liberals ran away because "they couldn't stand the heat". Tony Benn wanted to know whether MPs could table questions to Paddy Ashdown, since the Liberal Democrat leader had more access to Downing Street than Labour backbenchers.

FRANK DOBSON'S office prides itself on its computer literacy, but the Millennium bug seemed to strike early in his department this week. First, a draft letter was sent to every Labour MP telling them to welcome the extra money he was giving to their local hospitals to reduce waiting lists. Trouble was, Mr Dobson was also sent the letter, telling him to fill out his name and congratulate himself on his fine decision.

Later, robotic electronic government left Mr Dobson speechless for over an hour. He was unable to make an emergency statement in the Commons on CJD because his department's computers had crashed.

As he became increasingly frantic, Margaret Beckett stepped into the breach with her weekly business statement. A harassed government whip, Graham Allen, had to make Labour MPs ask questions to Mrs Beckett to delay proceedings until a hot and bothered Mr Dobson finally arrived.

Mr Dobson apologised and said the computer failure meant his statement could not be typed up. Perhaps they should keep an old-fashioned manual typewriter; or even a pen.

HOOLIGAN OF the week was the new Tory MP for South Holland and the Deepings, John Hayes, who lived up to the reputation he established at university - "You could have counted the people on campus more unpopular than myself on the fingers of a thalidomide's hand," he once said tastelessly.

Mr Hayes was so unruly during Prime Minister's Questions that he was threatened with expulsion from the Commons if he repeats it. Betty Boothroyd cautioned him with the worst tongue-lashing I've seen during her time as Speaker. It was splendid stuff.

A chastened Mr Hayes was already riding for a fall having tried, by innuendo, to embarrass Peter Mandelson in the wake of Nick Brown's "outing". Mr Mandelson was replying to a debate on factory closures when Mr Hayes interjected: "Would not the Right Honourable gentleman do better to emulate the Minister of Agriculture, who addressed the House in a mood of contrition and humility?"

He is the most recent in a line of Tories who have tried clumsily and unsuccessfully to cash in on Mr Mandelson's press difficulties. Chris Chope, for instance, had urged Mr Mandelson to study the pink paper - referring, of course, to the Financial Times, not the gay newspaper. And they wonder why they're not taken seriously as an opposition party.

IN MY new capacity as a Westminster elector I slipped in to the local Tories' public meeting entitled "Listening to Britain" held in a draughty church hall. And what a shambles it was.

A restless gathering of 80 members of the public (average age 65) waited for over half an hour before we were introduced to the crossbench peer Lord Marsh, the master of ceremonies. The chief listener, local MP Peter Brooke, arrived three-quarters of an hour late.

He didn't miss much, however. The first speaker was against automation and complained that modernisation would mean unemployment for paid domestic helps. Other Tories in the audience addressed the traditional issues: immigrants (too many); welfare state (too many scroungers); the homeless (it's their own fault); capital punishment (bring it back), etc.

It only hotted up when one speaker suggested there were too many BMWs outside the council blocks and that rents should be doubled. This provoked fury among the non-Tories in the audience. Those who weren't Conservatives were even less inclined to vote Tory by the end. One told me afterwards: "What a load of bull. When's Brooke retiring?"