Oliver Wright: Attempts to muzzle debate showed No 10 at its most beastly


From the outset, Downing Street's response to attempts by independent- minded MPs to ban the use of wild animals in circuses was misleading and bullying. Thankfully, yesterday it also proved to be futile.

Last month the Government tried to claim such a ban would breach circus owners' human rights. Then it emerged Whitehall officials had ruled out any human rights implications.

At the same time they tried to blame the EU by stating that "cross-border selling regulations" would be breached by any new British legislation.

Then the commission pointed out this wasn't true and member states could make exemptions on animal welfare grounds.

So having lost the argument, Downing Street (and David Cameron personally) resorted to baser tactics: bullying and bribery. On Monday Tory whips told Mark Pritchard, the MP behind the Bill, that if he dropped it quietly they would give him a job for his troubles. He refused.

On Wednesday night, on the eve of the debate, they threatened him: unless he withdrew the motion the Prime Minister would look upon it "very dimly indeed".

He refused again and even worse for Mr Cameron revealed all the dirty tactics on the floor of the Commons.

The result: Downing Street carried out the Coalition's 18th U-turn and gave MPs a free vote of the Wild Animal Bill, despite an earlier decision to issue a three-line whip. Predictably and rightly they lost without even having to go through the division lobbies.

The consequences of this debacle are significant. For Mr Pritchard – an honourable man brought up on a council estate and now a leading member of the Tories' 1922 Committee – his political career is all but over. Forget ministerial office or ennoblement; he will languish on the back benches for as long as Mr Cameron is in Downing Street.

His legacy will be an effective ban after the Government said it would respect the wishes of the House. And, given how much he cares about the subject, he will certainly prefer this to being under-secretary-of-state for paperclips.

For Mr Cameron, it has brought into the public spotlight bullying tendencies that, until now, have been kept behind close doors.

It also raises questions about why he took such a close interest in the subject. He over-ruled his own Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, to oppose the ban. Unsubstantiated rumours have circulated all week in Westminster that he had personal reasons for doing so. Those issues are unlikely to go away soon.

But amid the political shenanigans, the substance should not be forgotten.

MPs stood up to the Government and voted in favour of banning the use of wild animals in circuses. That's good news for animal welfare and democracy.