The right-wing plot to get Lord Mackay

Paul Vallely explains how the 'Daily Mail' organised a Tory backlash against the divorce Bill
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For years William Oddie has been pressing upon the editors of opinion pages on national newspapers article after article, all on a single theme - how the Conservative government, for all its rhetoric about the family , has presided over a raft of legislation which has systematically undermined the institution it purports to cherish. With equally tedious regularity the editors have mostly turned them down.

But this month Mr Oddie found his time had come. For more than a year ministers, MPs and journalists had maintained no more than a vague awareness of two bills - to reform divorce and to extend protection against domestic violence to those who are neither spouses nor partners. Only the zealous Mr Oddie, it seemed, bothered to read them all the way through.

Zeal is one of William Oddie's most distinct characteristics. He was for many of his years as an Anglican cleric best known for the fervour and vituperation of his prose as a traditionalist scourge of his more progressive fellows before finally turning his back on them and heading for Rome.

Almost everyone else had regarded the divorce and domestic violence reforms as non-controversial measures to tidy up the law. Indeed the Family Homes and Domestic Violence bill had gone through all its stages in the House of Lords, and was on its last stage in the Commons, when the article by William Oddie in the Daily Mail exploded the issue into a massive controversy. Of which, more later.

But it was in the Daily Telegraph that the first signs of the current familial fundamentalism emerged. Towards the end of September John Patten - who as education secretary had tried to reintroduce a moral dimension into sex education but was foiled by the Department of Health - pronounced that the reforms were a bad thing. Every time there had been reform, he argued, it had been followed by an increase in the divorce rate. The latest would "empty the marriage contract of any meaning" and "turn a contract for life into a probationary matter." He predicted the phrase "party of the family" would turn to ashes in Tory mouths.

But there was more in the air than moral majoritarianism. The man responsible for the reforms, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, it was becoming clear, could expect no backing from his colleagues in the legal profession. The man who wanted to deprive barristers of their sole rights of audience, make judges work longer for their generous pensions and turn legal aid into a bargain basement service, was, at the beginning of October, accused of humbug by Martin Mears, the new demonic president of the Law Society. In a piece for the Sunday Telegraph he predicted that, with his not impressive record, the Lord Chancellor would not remain long in office.

As Mr Mears fulminated, Mr Oddie burrowed away and Mr Patten began to whip in a few fellow Catholic Tories including Julian Brazier, the MP for Canterbury who had earlier proposed, in a pamphlet for the Bow Group, a tax on childless couples. They were joined from the other end of the religious spectrum by a group called Christian Action Research and Education - which, with its happy acronym CARE, was the renamed Nationwide Festival of Light, an evangelical body dedicated to "awakening the Protestant conscience of the nation" and determined that a sense of blame must be maintained if couples were to accept the moral responsibility of their divorce. Others involved included Christopher Whitehouse, clerk to the All-Party Pro-Life Group in the Commons (a post funded by the anti-abortion group, SPUC) and a research assistant to the group's chairman Ann Winterton MP.

By October 18 the Mail and Telegraph were able to go big with a story about a backbench rebellion on divorce noting that there were some 18 Catholic Tory MPs in the House. "It was quite a small group," said one Catholic insider. "By no means all the Catholic Tories agreed, though many of the others later began to feel that they have to fall in line even though the Catholic bishops announced their support for Mackay's proposals - and last week took the highly unusual step of reiterating that support." By then, however, John Patten was casting his net wider. John Redwood joined, bringing on board the non religious traditionalists. Then came the former ministers Edward Leigh and John MacGregor.

The Mail kept at it. Next day, it published a series of hefty pieces by one of its star writers, Graham Turner, who announced he had interviewed "some" of the 1.6 million children of divorced British parents. "I have heard their sighs and counted their tears," he wrote, accusing Lord Mackay of hammering another "nail into the coffin of marriage" so that holy wedlock is now "not even as important as your average hire purchase agreement". Apocalyptically he concluded: "Stable marriages are the very foundation stone of our society. Without them the modern state would collapse within a decade."

But it was William Oddie's article which lit the fuse. He detailed how a new fast-track parliamentary procedure had been used, ensuring that there was no Commons debate over this bill to "sabotage" marriage at the behest of "feminist groups and the domestic violence industry". Similar rights could go to homosexual partners.

Tory backbenchers were not yet outraged. The best the paper's news reporters could summon in support of its scoop was: "One Tory MP said yesterday: 'I have not heard of this bill and do not know what it contains. But if we are to be asked to vote for anything that harms marriage I believe there could be trouble'." But they got outraged pretty swiftly after an Oxford-based traditionalist think tank, Family and Youth Concern, for which, by happy coincidence Mrs Oddie wife works, circulated his article to all Tory MPs. For good measure so did the Conservative Campaign for the Family . "It was almost as if MPs didn't think it was an issue, "said Oddie, "until it appeared in the Mail,.

Ann Winterton confesses to the truth of this . "We left it until the 11th hour," she said. "Until then we had just assumed that what we had been told by ministers was true. There had been no debate. Under the fast track the second reading took 10 minutes before the Home Affairs select committee on the day of the Tory leadership election."

There was another potent ingredient in the mix. On Friday October 27 the Telegraph's front page revealed that backbenchers feared the domestic violence bill would be used by "politically correct judges" to extend the rights of cohabitees. Inside, one of its most charming ideologues, Dean Godson, reminded readers of Lord Mackay's training schemes in racial awareness for judges, his controversial desire to see more women, black and Asian lawyers and, heaven forbid, homosexuals on the bench. Mackay was the man who didn't prosecute the Muslim extremist Kalim Siddiqui for inciting racial hatred but did allow the prosecution of British soldiers accused of war crimes in the Falklands. And he had scrapped the Kilmuir rules restricting public pronouncements by members of the judiciary.

So there's the rub. It was Lord Mackay's tolerance which had allowed Lord Justice Taylor so swiftly to rebut Michael Howard's speech to the Tory conference proposing no remission for good behaviour for the nation's prisoners. It was a theme which John Patten had first introduced in his article the month before in which he lambasted Mrs Justice Hale, one of the five top lawyers who sat on the Law Commission to propose revisions to tidy up legal anachronisms. Justice Hale had apparently said, when she was an academic, "we should be considering whether the legal institution of marriage continues to serve any useful purpose". Worse than that she was a divorced woman. Or as the Daily Mail preferred to put it yesterday "a twice-married feminist".

"If this is the kind of person who is on the Law Commission do we wonder when it comes up with advice which is so faulty," said Mrs Winterton. The Daily Mail - whose editor Paul Dacre is known to rail in editorial conferences about "the non-elected, self-appointed judiciary" - agrees. His paper yesterday ran a vitriolic attack on the Law Commission, pointing out that it was founded by a Labour Government, though neglecting to say why after 16 years in power the Conservatives have not felt it necessary so far to reform or abolish it.

Instead it revealed that Lord Mackay is about to be embroiled in another row, over the Law Commission's report on the mentally infirm which, it predicts, will introduce legalised euthanasia and compulsory organ donation.

"Those of us who for the past three years have consistently campaigned to put family values back on the agenda are closer to the potential for a profound shift in public mood than many politicians," it opined. Not everyone is so convinced.

More thoughtful family moralists like the Liberal Democrat MP David Alton have called for a tax system which is at least fiscally neutral (at present both tax and benefits systems are skewed in favour of the unmarried). They want the money for any tax cuts to go on incremental tax allowances added to every year that a marriage survives. They have suggested that "family impact statements" be attached to every government policy proposal. They want policies to help lower the record levels of personal debt and negative equity - and of excessive hours at work - which cause such strain on many marriages. And they point out that papers like the Mail were keen advocates of Sunday Trading laws which have placed additional stresses on family life.

Family values, it seems, are something which no newspaper, and no political party, can afford to be without theses days. Though you can, of course, have too much of a good thing.

JOHN PATTEN said the reforms would 'empty the marriage contract of any meaning'

JULIAN BRAZIER, Catholic MP for Canterbury, proposed a tax on childless couples

PAUL DACRE, Daily Mail editor, rails about 'the non-elected, self- appointed judiciary'

MICHAEL MEARS, the new president of the Law Society, accused Mackay of humbug

ANN WINTERTON: 'We assumed that what we'd been told by ministers was true'

JOHN REDWOOD: one of only two ministers to oppose the divorce reforms