Nicholas Winterton, the fiercely independent Tory MP for Macclesfield, was yesterday prevented from returning to his role as chairman and member of the health select committee. Tory whips had offered control of the committee to Labour as a way of blocking Mr Winterton's chairmanship. Labour refused, forcing Tory whips to publicly bar his nomination.
Mr Winterton has served on the committee and its predecessors for 18 years. He said of the decision to remove him, taken officially at a brief meeting of the Commons committee of selection yesterday afternoon but in practice dictated by Tory whips: 'It brings the whole select committee system into discredit.
'It isn't so much anger as deep sadness that here, in the mother of all Parliaments, democracy and freedom of speech seem to be on the way out. They want to muzzle free speech.'
Under Mr Winterton's chairmanship the committee, which replaced the former social services committee 18 months ago, produced a damning report of the Government's health service changes.
His ousting, not due to be officially announced until this morning, appears to be in direct contradition of the expressed views of the Prime Minister. In a letter sent in February last year during an earlier attack on his chairmanship, Mr Major said: 'I have no doubt that you will bring your skill, knowledge and commitment to that task and that you will do it excellently.'
The affair is unlikely to end with the events of yesterday since MPs must vote on the membership of all the select committees on Monday night. Frank Field, Labour MP for Birkenhead, will table an amendment deleting a member's name and substituting Mr Winterton's. He will be returning a favour done by Mr Winterton for him in the past, when Labour whips left him off the social services committee.
There may be more trouble to come. Yesterday's final carve-up of chairmanships of committees leaves Labour in charge of employment, national heritage, social security, trade and industry, Welsh and Scottish affairs.
Sir Anthony Grant, a former trade minister and senior member of the trade and industry, said of the whips' decision to give trade and industry to Labour: 'I maintain that we have been outmanoeuvred by the Labour people. Some of them look like the cat that got the canary.' Sir Anthony said the Tory majority on the committee might decide to vote on its own chairman.
While Labour will chair two more committees than in the last session and about 70 of its MPs will serve as members, a rise of about a dozen, there were sour grapes over the chairmanship by Gerald Kaufman of the 'fun' committee that will shadow the Department of National Heritage.
While Mr Kaufman, outgoing foreign affairs spokesman, is known for his love of art and culture, there were grumbles that this breaks a convention that frontbench MPs should not jump to chairmanships of committees.