Inside Parliament: Labour leader at a loss in applying pin-down technique

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Indy Politics
Few students of constitutional law ever found much to laugh at over A C Dicey's Law of the Constitution, the seminal and deadly serious work first published in 1885.

For no readily apparent reason yesterday, mere mention of the opinion of the former Oxford Vinerian professor of law moved a number of MPs to prolonged laughter. John Smith remarked to Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, as she struggled to restore order that at least some of the Honourable Members opposite might have heard of him.

The Labour leader was attempting during Prime Minister's questions to pin down John Major over his intentions, in the event of the post-Royal Assent vote on the Maastricht treaty Bill's Social Chapter opt-out going against him.

Did Mr Major agree with Dicey that the 'one essential principle of our constitution is obedience by all persons to the deliberately expressed will of the House of Commons'?

Mr Major replied that by the end of the evening, both Houses of Parliament would have expressed their will by passing the European Communities (Amendment) Bill. Why was Mr Smith seeking to obstruct it, he challenged. Mr Smith repeated: 'Do you accept the will of the House of Commons on whatever subject it is expressed - yes or no?' Mr Major retorted: 'I might ask you, as I just did, exactly the same question.'

Mr Smith pressed on: 'The question before the House on Thursday night is required by the very Bill to which you made reference. Will you tell us if the Government will accept the decision of the House, whatever it is?' With the Tory Maastricht rebels massed on the benches behind, Mr Major declined to either allow himself to be pinned down, or to flap his wings too wildly. 'You know that this House does not support the Social Chapter. This House genuinely wants the treaty that I signed and I expect the House to reflect its genuine will in Thursday's debate.'

Yesterday, it was the veteran Tory Euro-rebel Sir Teddy Taylor who reminded the Prime Minister of his acute difficulties as he spotlighted the alleged shortcomings of the Common Agricultural Policy. Spending on it had risen to pounds 29bn this year, Sir Teddy said, at a time when the cereal mountain had broken all previous records. 'Might it be a possible compromise in a difficult week,' he suggested darkly but unsuccessfully, 'if the Government decided to postpone further transfers of sovereignty to Brussels until the CAP was scrapped or individual member states could be excluded from it?'

The tangled web of the potential Maastricht ratification crisis, the alleged wooing of Ulster Unionist MPs and the knock-on effects for the wider Northern Ireland question also refused to go away yesterday. The SDLP's John Hume told the Prime Minister that Lord Tebbit, the former Tory party chairman, 'publicly encourages terrorism'. His protest followed televised remarks by Lord Tebbit that only the bombing of Dublin would alter Ireland's 'illegal' claim over the six counties which was holding up the inter-party talks.

The SDLP leader said this advised loyalist paramilitaries to bomb Dublin if they wanted to achieve their objectives.

'Those same paramilitaries last evening bombed the homes of the MP for West Belfast and two leading members of our party. Will the Prime Minister ask the Home Secretary to implement government policy and issue an exclusion order against Lord Tebbit - and send him to Northern Ireland?' Lord Tebbit later qualified his remarks in a statement.

The possibility of hidden terrors during the Gulf war was raised earlier in defence questions, when Jeremy Hanley, the armed forces minister, admitted that lack of time meant that tank crews were not warned of the possible risk of using armour-piercing depleted uranium shells. The risk was 'infinitesimal', Mr Hanley said as he insisted that no clinical evidence of 'Desert Fever' or 'Desert Storm Syndrome' had come to light.

'There has never been a cover-up about all this. What there is is a genuine search for information so that we can help people who might be suffering from what is suspected in certain newspapers and certain television programmes,' he said.