Signs of the valuable peasants beginning to revolt

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The Independent Online
THE REVERBERATIONS of the Peter Mandelson affair dominated every nook and cranny of Parliament as MPs had their first opportunity to chew the fat since the Christmas recess.

The Tories were cock-a-hoop - although they failed to exploit the issue to any extent on the floor of the House. One might have expected a series of co-ordinated points of order and requests for emergency debates but they appear to have taken a strategic decision to ensure that the maximum press attention should be focused on the tensions within the Labour Party.

There was mild criticism of this tactic from some of the younger Tories, but there is merit, in the short term, for the leadership's more considered approach. The view seems to have been, based on the latest opinion polls, that the Tories are not the immediate beneficiaries of Labour's troubles. It seems that as the public hear more about sleaze they are also reminded of the Conservatives' former troubles. The Tory hope is that Labour's sleaze stories develop and translate further into solid stories of cabinet splits and backbench anger, providing safer ground from which to throw mud.

Labour MPs, meanwhile, were angry on two fronts. First, as Gwynneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) pointed out, they have been more disciplined than any other Parliamentary Labour Party during the past 30 years. Second, they are anxious and furious at Tony Blair's increasing desire to make deals with the Liberal Democrats.

The feeling was that the divisions, feuds and resentments were confined to the top and that it was cabinet ministers, rather than backbenchers, who needed the full attention and disciplinary powers of the government whips' office.

Anger at Mr Blair's insistence on ramming through his further discussions with Liberal Democrats boiled over beyond the PLP meeting to the chamber with Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) and Gordon Prentice (Pendle) receiving loud cheers for their forceful remarks to Margaret Beckett, the Leader of the House, against further co-operation. Mr Prentice demanded a formal statement from the Prime Minister to Parliament on the nature of the discussions with the Liberal Democrats and even tabled a question, asking whether they had been issued with security passes, which would give them access to secure areas in government buildings.

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LABOUR'S Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) initiated the best private members' debate of the week on parliamentary scrutiny, which received strong support from select committee chairmen. Mr Mackinlay regaled the House with a conversation he had had some time ago with a minister over his critical pursuit of the Sandline affair in the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. The minister told him that, since he got membership of the best travelling committee, he could not understand why Mr Mackinlay did not simply enjoy the goodies and trappings that went with the committee's membership.

Derek Foster, chairman of the Employment Select Committee, endorsed Mr Mackinlay's views and expressed his own contempt for MPs who behaved obsequiously in the hope of a frontbench job. Mr Foster said frontbenchers were "10 a penny, that's all some of them are worth - a tenth of a penny". He described the awkward squad "as the really valuable people in this place". Strong stuff from one who was Labour's chief whip for more than a decade.

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ATTEMPTS in senior Labour quarters to pre-empt the Speaker over the date of her retirement back-fired spectacularly - to the relief and pleasure of most MPs. Tony Benn (Lab, Chesterfield) and Tam Dalyell (Lab, Linlithgow) are to be congratulated on their forceful points of order, reminding ministers and spin-doctors that it is a parliamentary offence for them to make statements about the Speaker anywhere except by a motion on the floor of the Commons. Reports were placed in sections of the press that ministers felt Betty Boothroyd was being too lenient on MPs who disagreed with the Government's Iraq policy.

The sub-plot appears to be connected with a desire to ease the senior Liberal Democrat, Alan Beith, into the Speaker's chair as a way of keeping the party sweet with Labour, and as a consolation prize in the event that the referendum on proportional representation does not take place during the life time of this Parliament.

The plan now looks finished. With the Speaker making it clear that she will retire only in her own good time, the issue will not now arise probably until after the next election.

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WHILE the news of Tony Blair's Indian Ocean boat ride was dominated by the rescue of the ungrateful Dane, it turns out that the Prime Minister was actually hard at work saving his Government from drowning in the wake of the Mandelson resignation. In fact, the main reason Mr Blair happened to be in the tiny dinghy at all was because he was trying to get a satellite phone signal to speak to Hugh Bayley (MP for the City of York), to offer him the job of social security minister.

There have been many bizarre holiday circumstances involving MPs and reshuffles, but this is the first recorded occasion on which a Prime Minister has been on holiday, all at sea, while making appointments. History is littered with MPs becoming ministers by accident. Harold Wilson once appointed the wrong MP with the same name as another to a ministerial appointment, and had not the heart to correct the mistake. Red faces were caused to Mr Blair's staff when he appointed (Lord) Bernard Donoughue to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in 1997. Unfortunately, Downing Street officials telephoned Labour MP Brian Donohoe instead. But Mr Blair was not so soft hearted, although in the light of the allegations this week surrounding Lord Donoughue's links with the late Robert Maxwell he may be regretting that he did not emulate Harold Wilson's example.

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THE strength of opposition to any early return to government by Peter Mandelson seems to have been accepted at the end of the week by the cabinet enforcer, Jack Cunningham. But is Mr Mandelson himself yet reconciled to knuckling under and just dealing with blocked drains in Hartlepool? If not, perhaps he might spent a few months with his old friend Philip Gould, Labour election back-room boy, who is about to run the African National Congress election campaign for Tambo Mbeki who succeeds Nelson Mandela as South Africa's president later this year. Appropriately, there is even a street in Cape Town called Spin Street where Mr Mandelson could stay in exile, while putting his electioneering talents to good use.

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