How free vote led to divorce defeat

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The Independent Online
Long before last week's Commons vote on ending the concept of fault in divorce, the Government had hoisted the white flag.

Aware that the proposals from Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, faced stiff opposition, John Major announced last year that there would be a free vote. In the event there was an unexpected defeat for the Government on the proposed cooling- off period and a narrow victory on the measure itself. There was no attempt to whip Conservative MPs to back the Government's proposals - indeed five whips voted against no-fault divorces. Yet the scale of the vote against surprised almost everyone.

The objectors fall into several categories:

1) The campaigners. Includes a number of Roman Catholics, including former Secretary of State for Education John Patten, Ann Widdecombe, Minister of State at the Home Office, and Edward Leigh, former junior Trade and Industry minister. Mr Leigh acted as Commons campaign organiser.

2) The older generation. Dame Jill Knight, who described herself as a "most loyal backbencher" of 30 years' standing, parted company with the Government on this issue. She and Michael Jopling, a former chief whip, are instinctive opponents of anything smacking of permissiveness.

3) Big-hitters and political gesture-makers. All the Cabinet ministers who voted against were aware that their votes would be scrutinised. Three right-wing Cabinet ministers, Michael Howard, Peter Lilley and William Hague, will have had an eye on the right-of-centre of the party in making their decision. Mr Howard's move was particularly embarrassing for the Government since he will have been consulted about the Bill when it was framed. Stephen Dorrell, leading left-winger and potential leadership contender, may also have seen some political advantage in wooing the Right.

4) "MPs of the family". Almost all Conservatives see themselves as the party of the family. Many worry about links between family break- up and rising levels of crime and drug-taking.

Little noticed among the rumpus was that on this contentious division only 396 MPs bothered to vote at all.