The week in Westminster: Hague's generalship in action: Commons lion fired by donkeys

IT IS beyond comprehension that the Tories should have sacked Shaun Woodward (Witney) as their spokesman for London because of his sensible refusal to defend the infamous Clause 28, the law that prevents councils or schools from "promoting" homosexuality. The discourteous manner by which he was fired by a pager message is even more disgraceful.

Mr Woodward was one of the few civilised and intelligent members of the Opposition front bench. The Tories' desire to go to the wall over the defence of this law, which will be repealed anyway, is beyond belief. The wretched clause spawned the birth, in 1988, of the gay rights organisation Stonewall and Torche - the Tory Campaign For Homosexual Equality. A Torche meeting was recently addressed by William Hague's former diary secretary, David Gold, who told its members to keep up the pressure to repeal Clause 28.

Mr Woodward's speech earlier this year on the gay age of consent got him nominated as Speechmaker Of The Year for the Channel 4/House Magazine Parliamentary awards. He was landing punches on the Government over London Transport and ought to have been a candidate for promotion rather than dismissal.

Why on earth could not everyone be given a free vote? Never mind the Common Sense Revolution - just common sense would have done.


DAVID WINNICK (Lab, Walsall North) was on to an interesting point when he raised, in the wake of devolution in Northern Ireland, the prospect of amending the Oath of Allegiance to the Queen that members swear or affirm on taking their seats in the Commons. Questioning the Leader of the House, Margaret Beckett, Mr Winnick suggested that it was time to allow a new form of words to be used by MPs whose republican sentiments were now officially accepted as legitimately based.

Mr Winnick has a point. It seems bizarre that, having renounced violence, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are still barred from sitting in the Commons. Mr Winnick reminded the House that Christian non-believers were denied their seats in the Commons until the 19th century, unless they swore on the Bible. One MP who refused, Charles Bradlaw, was expelled three times - each time winning the subsequent by-election. Eventually the Commons relented and introduced the "affirmation" procedure, with an apology to Mr Bradlaw.

Mrs Beckett did not know how the Commons could proceed but sounded sympathetic to Mr Winnick's proposal. Sir Patrick Cormack (C, Staffordshire South) maintained, however, that legislation would be required.


THE WHEEL of political fortune has turned full circle for Peter Mandelson and John Prescott. A year ago, as Mr Mandelson left the Government in disgrace, John Prescott's star was in the ascendant with overblown talk of a reassertion of traditional Labour values. But the roles were reversed this week. While Mr Mandelson was busy doing himself out of a job, turning the reduction of his empire into a political triumph, Mr Prescott was still insisting, unsuccessfully, on trying to do too much.

I still believe that rumours of Mr Prescott's demise are much exaggerated and that the built-in elasticity of his relationship with Tony Blair still guarantees his place for some time to come. His relationship with Gordon Brown should also not be under-estimated. As Mr Prescott tellingly told the Parliamentary Labour Party, "I have had more sex [he meant success] with Gordon Brown" in securing more departmental expenditure increases than any other minister.


THE LIBERAL Democrats' Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) and Dr Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park) have been busy making sure that the Commons food outlets play their part in healthy eating and in promoting the Caribbean banana trade. Mr Brake has tabled a motion entitled "House of Commons Mash" calling for a balanced diet and expressing concern that "for the same price two ice cream scoops of mashed potato is far less tempting than a massive portion of chips". Mr Brake wants equality for mash lovers, to encourage a healthy diet in the Commons.

Meanwhile, Dr Tonge has written to the chairman of the catering committee, asking that all fruit, especially bananas, sold in the Commons cafes is clearly labelled with its country of origin. Dr Tonge said: "Many members are concerned about the future of Caribbean banana growers ... and they would like to show their support for smaller producers."


IT MAY have been a bad week for John Prescott but light relief will soon be at hand when he hosts the Christmas party for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Not content with paper hats, crackers and Father Christmas, organisers are to set a "theme" for the party along the lines of 20th-century icons, with guests expected to dress appropriately. Officials were tight- lipped as to whether the Deputy Prime Minister might turn up in the guise of Gandhi when he returns from his visit to India next week.

If the Department still had its own former actress, in the shape of Glenda Jackson, she could have played Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana. Whether the local government ministers Hilary Armstrong and Beverley Hughes are up to these roles is doubtful. Last year the theme was "Twinkle" and Downing Street press officers arrived with wands.

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