Inside Parliament: An emotional and bizarre performance: Former minister clashes with Speaker in resignation speech - Childcare Bill introduced - Pit closures attacked

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Indy Politics
Michael Mates sat down after his 28-minute resignation speech and clutched the woodwork of the bench in front of him, shaking with emotion. Resignation statements have become prime House of Commons theatre and the former lieutenant-colonel had given a performance that was courageous and bizarre.

Sir Malcolm Thornton, MP for Crosby, was the first to clutch him by the arm in a gesture of reassurance. Other Tories gathered round supportively, and as he left the chamber Mr Mates was acknowledged by Labour backbenchers and Ulstermen. MPs seemed bemused by Mr Mates's allegations about the Serious Fraud Office's investigation into the affairs of the fugitive businessman Asil Nadir. But there was little doubt about the MP's passionate commitment to speak his piece as he became locked in an extraordinary dispute with the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd.

Repeatedly interrupting the former Northern Ireland minister over the details of his speech, she exploded when he said that the SFO had exercised 'quite improper pressure' on the trial judge for the Nadir case, Mr Justice Tucker.

Mr Mates looked close to humiliation as he told Miss Boothroyd that he was 'embarrassed' and then, somewhat plaintively, appealed to her: 'Please trust me.' But, hands trembling as he gripped his script, he rode above her strictures on the sub judice rule, intended to prevent MPs prejudicing legal proceedings and zealously policed by the Commons clerks who gestured frantically to the Speaker.

'It is this sequence of events (pressure on the judge) above all which demands an independent inquiry. And if one cannot come to the House and tell them what is wrong with the system; if one cannot speak in this place, not about innocence or guilt, not about trials, not about sub judice, but what has gone wrong with the system, then, Madame Speaker, what is the point of being here?'

Mr Mates was drowned by Miss Boothroyd's next outburst: 'It is after the trial that the honourable gentleman must give this information. That is the point.' But the emotional tide was running with Mr Mates and he pressed on. On the front bench, Cabinet ministers including John Major sat stoney- faced or studied their socks. Labour backbenchers who had anticipated an afternoon's entertainment watching a fallen minister squirm ended up cheering in support. Quoting the inscription on the fateful watch given by Mr Mates to Mr Nadir, Bob Cryer, Labour MP Bradford South, called out: 'Don't let the buggers get you down.' And Mr Mates didn't.

He concluded by saying he bitterly regretted what happened, but hoped that in similar circumstances, if something was amiss in the system, he would have the courage to get involved again. 'I was guilty of one foolish indiscretion, but I have done nothing else improper. I hope that, when this whole story is told, this House will consider that throughout this affair I have acted as an honourable man.'

The resignation speech over, MPs fled the chamber, probably to talk it over in one of the Commons' 14 restaurants or nine bars marked by Dianne Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney N and Stoke Newington, as she introduced her Workplace Childcare Bill. Declaring that the Commons, with 116,000 sq m of space and 1,207 offices, should take a lead and provide a creche, she said: 'We have many facilities for drinkers, but nothing for children.' Her Bill would force firms over a certain size to make provision for child care for their employees, but stands no chance of becoming law.

'We should take seriously the role of pre-school child care in making people grow up as law-abiding citizens,' Ms Abbott said, before MPs went on to consider amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill on punishing those who go astray. Alun Michael, a Labour home affairs spokesman, called in vain for a code of practice on liaison between courts, councils and the police on the effective use of non-custodial sentences. The aim would be to reduce reoffending, he said, accusing the Tories of being 'soft on crime'.

The resignation speech of Norman Lamont was echoed by John Smith at Question Time as he denounced the coal White Paper as a fraud - three of the 12 'reprieved' pits now face closure. 'Isn't it a perfect example of the style of the Prime Minister and his government that they produce a White Paper for 36 hours' publicity which has not survived three months in the real world?'

Mr Major responded by quoting Arthur Scargill, the NUM president: 'The Labour leadership is more interested in opinion polls and images than in principles and real policies.'

While Mr Smith gets three Question Time shots at the Prime Minister almost as of right, getting one is an infrequent opportunty for most MPs. Prefacing a question on policing, Sir Michael Neubert, Conservative MP for Romford, complained that on his opportunity this session, the BBC was showing Wimbledon on both channels. Mr Major said it was the BBC's best decision for some time: 'Game, set and match to them.' But then the cameras rolled for Mr Mates.