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Alan Watkins

Where can you find a troublemaker when you need one?

There was a time when the House of Commons boasted an élite corps of troublemakers. Their admirers called them proceduralists, authorities on the correct conduct of parliamentary business, which was, indeed, the light in which they liked to view themselves. Their detractors, of whom there were many, referred to them as barrack-room lawyers.

There was a time when the House of Commons boasted an élite corps of troublemakers. Their admirers called them proceduralists, authorities on the correct conduct of parliamentary business, which was, indeed, the light in which they liked to view themselves. Their detractors, of whom there were many, referred to them as barrack-room lawyers.

They tended to flourish under Conservative governments, which was why most of them were Labour. They included lawyers such as Geoffrey Bing, Leslie Hale and Sydney Silverman, and non-lawyers such as George Wigg and the very different George Cunningham - who was a power under the Labour governments of the 1970s. For the Conservatives, Robin Maxwell-Hyslop deserves honourable mention.

Mostly, however, the Tories tended to produce, not troublemakers exactly, but grave, upright men, often knights or even baronets, with highly polished shoes on their feet and distinguished war service to their names. Examples were Sir Harry Legge-Bourke and Sir Godfrey Nicholson. Sir Godfrey was a distiller, famous for Nicholson's Gin. He once advised a friend of mine always to buy the cheapest gin available, because it was all the same: he knew, because he made most of the stuff. If Sir Godfrey or, for that matter, Sir Harry said that something was wrong, the government would straighten up and pay attention. They possessed a quality that has now gone out of politics, as it has out of life: an authority which was not dependent on power and was, indeed, quite separate from power, as it was also from fame or what would now be called celebrity.

The true troublemakers, on the other hand, had no hesitation in causing difficulties of one sort or another through the exercise of their procedural skills. Just as they were different from the Tory figures of authority, so they had to be distinguished from that larger group of permanent Labour dissidents, heirs of the Bevanites and of the old Keep Left group, who now have a core-membership of around 40. In the last half-century, the troublemakers have produced three major figures - Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Enoch Powell - whose parliamentary importance was not diminished by their failure to reach No 10.

Now, it seems, the stream has dried up; or, perhaps, it has trickled into the sand. I can imagine the way in which the troublemakers of old would have responded to the treatment of Mr Howard Flight at the hands of Mr Michael Howard. They would have accused Mr Howard of a breach of parliamentary privilege - more precisely, of a contempt of the House. Irrespective of whether they had managed to have Mr Howard committed to prison (Brixton, I believe, was the chosen venue, not the Clock Tower), or formally reprimanded by the House, or merely examined by the Committee of Privileges, they would certainly have succeeded in giving the Leader of the Opposition a thoroughly uncomfortable time; and deservedly so.

To begin with, Mr Howard is restricting Mr Flight's freedom of speech as an MP. This is the first of parliamentary privileges, the reason why a member cannot be sued for defamation for what he says on the floor of the House, however false or malicious - though I cannot help adding that MPs show no hesitation about suing other people when it suits their purposes. It can plausibly be argued that the Whips, in their daily tasks, do little else except infringe the freedom of speech. They have done so ever since the rise of mass parties at the end of the 19th century. This age may now be coming to an end - may already have reached its end.

This, however, has not led to any reversion to the freer ways of an earlier period. On the contrary: in the past decade party discipline has become more severe. New Labour attributed its exclusion from office to an excess of freedom of speech in the 1980s. It also took Mr John Major's miserable experiences in the 1990s as a terrible warning of what could happen once backbenchers were allowed out on their own. The Conservatives, for their part, following the advice of The Times, the Financial Times and The Economist, want to be as like New Labour as possible. Mr Tony Blair is successful: therefore, the recipe is to imitate Mr Blair.

But the Prime Minister has more about him of the classic master criminal. For himself, he abhors violence but, alas, he is unable to speak for some of his associates, such as Dr John Reid, who has a PhD in tooth extraction. Mr Blair is happy to leave the dirty work to others.

Not so Mr Howard. Indeed, he seems to take a delight in discipline of which Miss Whiplash herself might be proud: this is hurting you more than it hurts me. I'm getting paid for it too. Moreover, Mr Howard has form. He had the effrontery to send Mr Boris Johnson, the editor of The Spectator - the holder of a more distinguished office than that of Leader of the Conservative Party - all the way to Liverpool to apologise to the inhabitants of that benighted city. Two weeks later he dismissed Mr Johnson from the front bench for allegedly misleading him about his sexual activities: an area where no gentleman should ask another person, of either sex, any questions at all and expect to receive a truthful answer.

At least Mr Howard did not lay down that Mr Johnson could not contest Henley at the election. This is the second limb to the charge of breach of privilege. For it is not simply a question of freedom of speech. Mr Howard is trying to control the membership of the House. It was the issue which John Wilkes contested on behalf of the electors of Middlesex. In 1961 Mr Benn won a by-election in Bristol South-East, before he succeeded in changing the law on the disclaimer of peerages. The citizens of Arundel and South Down surely deserve the chance to tell us what they think of Mr Flight.

I wrote at the beginning that the age of the troublemaker had passed. There are, however, at least two left on the Labour benches. One is Mr Tam Dalyell, who sadly is leaving the House at the election. He does not like being called a troublemaker. His dislike is perfectly genuine, not an affectation. He believes that all he is doing is performing the normal functions of the backbench member. The other one is Mr Robert Marshall-Andrews, who was seen to advantage opposing the Government's latest plans to deprive us of our liberty.

Will Mr Marshall-Andrews or Mr Dalyell now use his best endeavours to have Mr Howard arraigned before the Standards and Privileges Committee? It would amount to a public service if either or, preferably, both of them managed to bring this about.