Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, was last night fighting to keep his reform of divorce law afloat after bowing to Tory backbench pressure and shelving a planned Bill on domestic violence.
He made no secret of his disappointment at losing a piece of legislation which was ambushed in its closing parliamentary stages by "moral majority" Tory MPs who complained that it undermined marriage by strengthening protection against battering for unmarried women.
In a concession which his supporters now hope will ensure that his threatened divorce measure will be included in this month's Queen's Speech, Lord Mackay said he was "considering" the representations made to him but that it was "impossible to make further progress" with the present Bill in the current parliamentary session.
He made it clear that he was still battling to retain his planned new divorce law - which ends "quickie" divorces on grounds of fault - in the legislative programme, during a series of radio and television interviews, in which he declared pointedly that he hoped the Bill would be afforded "the early attention of Parliament". He said: "I am convinced it is the right Bill."
The Lord Chancellor pointed out that its passage through Parliament would provide opportunities to amend the Bill.
Labour seized on the "capitulation" as a further sign of appeasement of right-wing backbenchers. And a new opinion poll appeared to reinforce its criticism that the Tories had made an unpopular lurch to the right, giving the Opposition its third highest lead ever over the Tories. The Gallup poll, for the Daily Telegraph, put Labour on 61 per cent, the Tories on 21.5, and the Liberal Democrats on 14.5 per cent.
Labour's spokesman for legal affairs, Paul Boateng, complained that the domestic violence measure had fallen victim to a "bloody family feud within the Tory party", but there were signs that the Lord Chancellor's chances of preserving his Divorce Reform Bill had improved since last weekend.
It remains far from certain that the Bill will be given the green light when ministers meet on Monday to finalise the
1995-6 programme. However, optimism in the Lord Chancellor's Department was reinforced by unmistakeable, if belated, signs of a Tory fightback in Lord Mackay's favour.
Lord Cranborne, the leader of the Lords, told peers last night that the domestic violence Bill had been treated "in good faith" as a measure which had a consensus of support. It had received the "ill-informed attentions" of a newspaper - later named as the Daily Mail - which had alerted a number of MPs into "expressing reservations". He added: "I have to express the Government's view that this is a very great pity."
As a group of Tory MPs, led by Peter Bottomley, went to see the Lord Chancellor to express their strong support, there was also evidence of a belated backlash against the critics. Teresa Gorman, the right-wing libertarian MP for Billericay, called Lord Mackay's critics "silly".
Mrs Gorman praised the "universally respected" Lord Mackay and added: "The Bill is the first of two reforms designed to come to terms with the fact that social patterns have changed while the law still reflects the idea that marriage is the only legitimate way of living together; anything else is living in sin."
Meanwhile, speaking after his meeting with the Lord Chancellor, Mr Bottomley said of the divorce measure: "If the Mothers' Union support it - and they do - then so should we."
But Lady Olga Maitland, one of the most prominent backbench opponents of both Bills, called yesterday for a Commons debate on the "role of the family in British society".
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What the Bill would have done
Under the Bill, ex-wives and former partners, mothers under threat from violent sons, and house-sharers would have been given the same protection from actual or threatened violence or harassment (such as threatening phone calls) as wives and unmarried partners already enjoy.
There would also have been greater police powers to arrest those who defied court orders.
Some victims would have been able to get a court order to live in a previously- shared home, excluding the violent partner. Those helped by the Bill in this way would only have been allowed to do so for periods limited to six months, and only within a court order.Reuse content