Shrink the Commons, say Tory left

Call to cut number of MPs by 150
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The Independent Online
Conservative moderates yesterday set out a draft manifesto calling for far-reaching reform of the political system - including a cut in the number of MPs who sit in the Commons - as part of their fight back against the "beef war jingoism" currently gripping Parliament.

The "wet" Tory Reform Group document calls for public services to come before tax cuts, and for a more left-wing transport policy than Labour, including higher taxes on business to pay for public transport and a tax on company car parking.

It also calls for a cut in the size of the Commons to 500, with "increased pay" for MPs, and all-party talks on the future of the House of Lords.

The foreword is written by David Hunt, the former Cabinet minister close to John Major, who emerged yesterday as head of a new group, called Conservative Mainstream, formed to counter the growing strength of the Euro-sceptic right.

The Prime Minister was brutally reminded of the strength of Tory pro- Europeans by George Walden, Tory MP for Buckingham and a former minister, who threatened yesterday to wipe out the Government's one-vote Commons majority if the campaign to disrupt Brussels business was escalated.

But Mr Major will come under pressure from the opposite wing of his party after Jacques Santer, President of the European Commission, said yesterday there was no prospect of a timetable for lifting the ban on British beef. Mr Santer accused Mr Major of "mismanaging" the situation and predicted that his campaign to disrupt Brussels business would backfire.

He said the key issue was consumer confidence and that would not return as a result of a fixed timetable. "We cannot decide through a decree when confidence will be restored."

Mr Major has been careful to demand a "framework" rather than a timetable, but Mr Santer's intervention makes it harder for him to end the non-co- operation strategy without appearing to back down.

The Prime Minister is now in danger of being squeezed between the nationalist sentiment of most Tory MPs and newspapers and the small group of Tories who do not like his anti-EU tactics.

Sir Jerry Wiggin, chairman of the all-party agriculture select committee, said: "The matter was escalated beyond credibility when the EU announced the ban on British beef ... the Europeans simply broke the rules.

Mr Walden, on the other hand, said it was "embarrassing enough now" to be a member of the Tory party, but "if this is just the beginning of a profoundly mistaken and morally wrong strategy, then I would have to consider my position".

He said he would not join Labour or the Liberal Democrats but, speaking to the Independent after making a veiled threat on GMTV, he did not rule out using his vote to bring down the Government. "I"m not going to do anything petulant or rash, because that's what I deplore ... but I just think that someone has to point the finger and say this is really not the action of a mature country."

His threat gives real force to what would otherwise be just another relaunch of the Tory left. Mr Hunt's new grouping will attempt to unite a range of groups, including the Tory Reform Group (TRG).

Part of the new group's role will be to try to balance the organised right in the fight for the Tory leadership which many regard as inevitable after the election. But the TRG's draft manifesto also fires the first real shots in the coming war over the ideological shape of the Tory manifesto for the next election.

The documents says: "The balance between higher taxes and better public services is a difficult one, but we shall always remember our duty to protect the weak when we set tax levels for everyone."

It admits that voters "feel a sense of alienation from government and the political system", and suggests cutting the number of MPs to 500.

It also says the Conservative Party should offer to take part in talks on the future of the House of Lords, "but on the basis that we will not accept an entirely appointed second chamber" - implying support for some kind of elections.