INSIDE PARLIAMENT : `Whipless nine' defy logic in the latest numbers racket

`Grubby' problem for Conservatives New media ownership curbs sought as Kermit proves the last straw
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Indy Politics
John Biffen, the sagely former leader of the Commons, yesterday summed the affair of the "whipless nine" and the preservation of the Government's majority as a "grubby political problem" susceptible to only one lasting solution.

"There cannot be a full restoration of Conservative fortunes and fighting ability until we have resolved this miserable business of the whipless nine and the very powerful degree of support they entertain in the country," Mr Biffen told the House.

For Labour, the debate on a Government motion intended to preserve its majority on Commons standing committees was rich entertainment. For Tony Newton, the current Leader, it was plainly an uncomfortable experience as he struggled to argue that an MP could refuse to support his prime minister on an issue of confidence, have the party whip withdrawn, and still be counted as a Conservative member in the numercial balance of the House.

In the official Weekly Information Bulletin, the eight Euro-rebels who abstained on the Bill to increase payments to Brussels are listed apart from their 321 colleagues and described as "elected as Conservatives but the whip has been withdrawn". Sir Richard Body, the MP for Holland with Boston, who voluntarily resigned the whip in protest, is in a category on his own.

Though the creation of the "whipless nine" meant Mr Major was technically leading a minority government, last night's votes maintain the narrow Tory majority on all committees considering legislation.

Mr Newton assured Sir Teddy Taylor, one of the rebels, that there would be no veto on whipless MPs applying for committee places. "Withdrawal of the Conservative whip does not constitute expulsion from the Conservative Party,'' he insisted. Membership ofcommittees is generally heavily influenced by what another outcast, Tony Marlow, MP for Northampton North, called "the friendly Gestapo in the whips office".

Further balm was offered to the whipless Christopher Gill, MP for Ludlow, who asked for one good reason why he should vote for a motion putting the Government in a position "where they can prolong my punishment indefinitely". Mr Newton replied: "All of us wish to see this situation resolved as speedily as possible."

But to laughter, another rebel, Nicholas Budgen, MP for Wolverhampton SW, wondered how that could come about. "We are told that one of the ways we may be able to crawl back on our knees into the party is by a display of abject loyalty." But there was a practical difficulty, Mr Budgen said.

"If we don't get the whip, we don't know when the votes will come. We don't know when anything will be contested and we cannot display the subservience required from us." Mr Newton offered to be "as helpful as we can" in keeping the MP informed.

Labour MPs were delighted. Ann Taylor, the shadow Leader of the House, said the Government wanted it both ways. "If Conservative MPs cannot vote for the Government in a vote of confidence which the Prime Minister himself has said could have led to a general election, then how on earth can the Government count on them as part of their majority on a day-by-day basis?"

A backbench Bill taking on what its author termed "unscrupulous megalomaniacs" by severely limiting the ownership of newspapers and television stations was introduced to the Commons yesterday with cross-party support. Chris Mullin said his Media (Diversity) Bill should appeal to "civilised people of all political persuasions''.

The Bill would certainly not appeal to Rupert Murdoch, owner of five national newspapers and with effectively a controlling interest in satellite television. Top of the Bill's requirements is that no national newspaper proprietor would be permitted to own more than one daily or one Sunday newspaper.

Nor would anyone who is not a European Union citizen be allowed to have more than a 20 per cent stake in British national or regional newspaper, or terrestrial or satellite television company. The Bill would also mean a scaling down of the empires of Michael Green (Carlton and Central) and Gerry Robinson (Granada and London Weekend). Mr Mullin, Labour MP for Sunderland South, detailed provisions that would require both media men to reduce their stakes in ITN.

"This Bill would reverse the growing trend towards monopoly ownership of most of what we see on our television screens and read in our newspapers. The purpose is to protect our culture and our democracy from the barbarism of the unregulated market," Mr Mullin said.

"Already there has been an obvious decline in quality at ITN news, a reluctance in invest in foreign reporting, an increasing tendency to conduct long and pointless live interviews between an anchorman in Grays Inn Road and a correspondent rarely two or three miles away.

"The other day on ITN news there was a lengthy item on Kermit the Frog.''

With his criticisms drawing vocal approval from MPs on both sides of the chamber, Mr Mullin said the increased number of channels offered to new techology would mean less choice.

"What I fear most is not political bias, but the steady growth of junk journalism ... a flat refusal to address what's going on in our world in favour of an endless diet of crime, game shows and soap operas, and the unadulterated hate that is already a feature of our most loathsome tabloid newspapers."

Though Michael Fabricant, Tory MP for Mid Staffordshire, spoke against the 10-minute rule Bill, describing Mr Mullin's speech as the "authentic voice of socialism" behind the "Colgate ring of confidence smile" of Tony Blair, it was introduced without a division and given a formal First Reading.

The Bill's supporters included four Tory MPs, two of them currently without the party whip, but such a far-reaching measure stands virtually no chance of becoming law - even under a Labour government.

Adding a warning for his party leader who recently dined with Mr Murdoch, Mr Mullin said that seeing the possibility of a Labour election victory, a massive bout of free-lunching had been unleashed.

"Its purpose is to persuade those of my colleagues charged with responsibility in these matters that big is beautiful, that the triumph of the market is inevitable, and that it will not diminish the quality of the product.

"One of the purposes of this Bill is to stiffen the resolve of my honourable friends," he said.