Politics: Two old troublemakers are happily reselected

The Week In Westminster
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The Independent Online
EXPERIENCE AND independence are still valued in the Labour Party. Witness the reselection of Austin Mitchell (65, Great Grimsby) and Tam Dalyell (67, Linlithgow).

Mr Dalyell had originally planned to retire at the next election but was angered when Labour's general secretary, Margaret McDonagh, sent a round robin to senior MPs demanding to be informed of their intentions - with the implicit hope that they would walk the plank.

Mr Dalyell told her that he felt his constituency party should be the first to hear his decision. Linlithgow Labour Party was aghast, however, at the prospect of losing its indefatigable member of 37 years, and by popular demand, it looks as though Mr Dalyell has been prevailed upon to stand again.

This is great news for Parliament but bad news for Gordon Brown, who faced Mr Dalyell's wrath for failing to listen to Labour MPs' concerns regarding the Welfare Reform Bill's proposals to withdraw invalidity benefit. Mr Dalyell even tabled a written questions, seeking to know of the Chancellor's official engagements "between 3.30pm and 7.00pm on 3 November".

Mr Brown's response - "I had meetings at the Treasury and visited the London Stock Exchange to launch Techmark [a new share market for technology companies]" - drew criticism from Mr Dalyell at the Parliamentary Labour Party meeting when he told the Chancellor that the Prime Minister's and ministers' first duties were to attend in the House of Commons, especially to hear backbench arguments against the Government.

"Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan were always in the chamber if there was a rebellion and even Margaret Thatcher faced my criticisms over the Belgrano affair," he said.

THERE WAS universal anger and disgust at the way Tony Benn (Lab, Chesterfield) was treated by the Government during his adjournment debate on the relationship between the executive and the legislature.

Although the debate did not start until 1.00am, more than 50 MPs from all sides were treated to a speech of devastating clarity with arguments in favour of re-asserting parliamentary control of the Government. His central theme was to remind MPs that "governments do not make laws. Members of Parliament make laws", and he called for MPs to "speak and vote more freely".

MPs were furious that the Government treated Mr Benn with contempt by putting up the most junior minister, the newly appointed Under- Secretary at the Cabinet Office, Graham Stringer, who was elected only in 1997, to reply to the debate. Mr Stringer, clearly out of his depth, resorted to insulting Mr Benn, always a model of reason and courtesy, by dismissing his arguments as built "completely on fresh air". His suggestion that "if all honMembers decided to vote this way and that in this place" it would lead to "chaos" was regarded as heavy-handed and excessive. The general view was that Mr Benn should have had a response from the Leader of the House, Margaret Beckett, who would at least have attempted to giftwrap the Government's desire to smother Parliament.

GERALD HOWARTH (C, Aldershot) was involved in an altercation with a government whip, Jim Dowd, at the Bar of the House during Tony Benn's adjournment debate that resulted in Mr Howarth raising a point of order with the Deputy Speaker. "I was threatened," Mr Howarth alleged.

Sweetness and light appeared momentarily to have broken out the next morning when Mr Howarth's office was telephoned by the Chief Whip, who invited him to nominate three young people from his constituency to accompany him to 10 Downing Street to join others in taking tea with Cherie Blair. Sadly, Mr Howarth was slow off the mark in returning the call, by which time the invitation had been withdrawn.

AS THIS column noted last week, Francis Maude's tenure as shadow Chancellor has been a disaster. But even I did not imagine how this reputation would be compounded by his shambles of a response to Gordon Brown after the pre-Budget statement.

Clearly chastened, Mr Maude did not even bother to tackle the Chancellor in any exchanges during Treasury questions, preferring instead to engage only against Melanie Johnson, the newest junior minister.

THE TORY health spokesman, Dr Liam Fox (C, Woodspring) a former general practitioner who still keeps a prescription pad in his briefcase to helpMPs to get over minor ailments, was recently approached by a Labour MP for a Viagra prescription. "Sorry, I don't do Viagra or Prozac," Dr Fox told him.

Dr Fox said: "The MP went away looking very deflated. On second thoughts, perhaps, that's why he came to me in the first place."