Politics: Whips conspired to score direct hit on democracy

The Week In Westminster

THE GOVERNMENT'S whips behaved disgracefully during the debate on the Iraq conflict. The result was, of course, a foregone conclusion and, in any case, a lost vote would not have mattered since the debate was held on the technical motion "to adjourn".

But by failing to supply tellers when the Deputy Speaker put the question, the division was cancelled. As a result, on an issue with profound moral, ethical and national dimensions, the Labour dissenters were prevented from registering their protest.

This seemed even more astounding given Tony Blair's intervention, in which he reminded George Galloway, one of his leading critics, that the MP for Glasgow Kelvin was fortunate to be able to speak against the Government in a way denied to opponents of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.

The viciousness with which Labour treated Mr Galloway, Tony Benn and others was demeaning to Parliament. Any MP should surely be allowed to speak and vote as he or she pleases on such an issue, however unpopular their arguments. And there can be little question that Tory business managers conspired with Labour whips in this ploy.

The worst Labour lap dog was the surprising figure of Dale Campbell Savours, who once enjoyed a reputation as a parliamentary terrier. Now reduced to abusing Tam Dalyell, he claimed that it was outrageous for MPs even to argue about the issues. Mr Dalyell, Mr Galloway and Mr Benn may be fully paid-up members of the awkward squad but their records of defending freedom and democracy are better than most of those in Westminster.

I ATTENDED the right-wing No Turning Back Group annual Christmas dinner in honour of its president, Baroness Thatcher, on the evening of the final Lords debate on the European Elections Bill. Voting, however, came before old cronies for the former prime minister.

Hardly had she swallowed a mouthful of turkey than she swept off into the night to attend the Lords for a division, desperate to give a final kick to proportional representation before the Bill automatically becomes law under the Parliament Act.

Cheated of the opportunity of hearing replays of their heroine's past glories, the Tory MPs went back to the Commons for the 10pm vote. Three former members, defeated at the election but invited for old time's sake, stayed behind to enjoy a brandy, only to find themselves joined by the returning Lady Thatcher, who forced them to endure an hour-long monologue, encompassing Europe, the Falklands War and, of course, the Pinochet case.

Her greatest ire was reserved for Jack Straw, the Home Secretary. Clearly, she retains strong memories of the trouble he caused her when she was education secretary ("Milk Snatcher Thatcher") and he was the president of the National Union of Students nearly 30 years ago. Sadly, there was not a word out of turn about William Hague.

MARTIN BELL, the Independent MP for Tatton, is concerned about the threat to democracy posed by the Registration of Political Parties Act, which has just reached the statute book.

Mr. Bell has received a letter from the Registrar inviting him to register as a political party. Under the Act he is not allowed to register as "independent" and asks what he is expected to do. "What else should I be? The Tatton Park Party, the Flat Earth Party or the Knutsford Heath Party? It doesn't make sense," he says.

Mr Bell's principal concern was for independent-minded members of established parties. From now on it will be against the law to stand as independent Labour, independent Conservative or independent Liberal Democrat. The provision prohibits the right of an individual who has fallen out with his party to stand as an independent member of that party, which would, for example, stop Ken Coates from standing for the European parliament next year as an independent Labour candidate. The Act also applies to local government.

Mr Bell believes space must be given to free spirits, independent-minded people and people outside the system. "They do not threaten the system but reinforce it by adding legitimacy to the members of established parties who get elected," he says.

The Government, unsurprisingly, disagrees. According to George Howarth, the Home Office minister, "the conjunction of the words `independent' and `party' is probably a tautology". And there was no hint of irony in his voice.

THE SO-CALLED "free vote" on modernisation turned out to be a farce with Labour whips patrolling the entrance to the division lobbies. All Labour MPs, except the former chief whip Derek Foster, voted to begin morning sittings on Thursdays while Conservatives voted against the proposal. There will rarely be votes on Thursdays and with Prime Minister's Question Time now on Wednesdays there is little reason for MPs to stay in Westminster beyond Wednesday evening.

During the debate there was also growing concern over a proposal to consider the introduction of a "main committee". All MPs would be members of this committee which would sit in parallel and at the same time as the chamber to consider non-controversial legislation and select committee reports.

The proposal is modelled on the Australian parliament. Although there was no formal recommendation before the House it is the intention to return to the proposal. Given that the chamber is already empty most of the time, a "main committee" will provide yet another way of neutralising the mother of parliaments.

AS I finish this column, William Hague's gruesome Christmas card featuring a lonely shepherd leading seven sheep across a snowy wilderness under a black threatening sky arrives in the same post as Michael Portillo's colourful, 17-inch scene of a Sienese general riding victoriously towards his palazzo. A portent of things to come next year, one can't help wondering.

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