The Sketch: Gordon's trickery backfires on him

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The Independent Online

You could tell Gordon Brown thought he was being particularly cunning by that smile he can't quite suppress. We've seen it twice recently.

First when the Chancellor announced they were matching Tory inheritance tax plans (that worked well, as we remember). The second was prompted by Gordon's declaration there would be days and days and days of scrutinising the European Treaty. He assumed he could rerun the Maastricht debates which damaged the Tories so.

As ever, when Gordon gets tricky it backfires on him. Jim Murphy was the poor fellow who failed to carry the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill through committee. Both oppositions dismantled his arguments and dismantled him a little in the process. It's happening again, a bit.

He's such a nice fellow we had to watch parts of it between our fingers. He was so far off-beat that he managed, as William Hague said, to effect a reconciliation between Ken Clarke and Bill Cash (shouts of laughter from all parts of the House, even from the minister).

The Government's promises for unparalleled opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny were, frankly, demolished by both sides. Gwynneth Dunwoody's question dominated the next two hours. Why was there nothing particularly about transport?

Why was so much time being given to these nebulous themes and so little to amendments?

Committee procedure had been reversed. It was this that gave Ken Clarke common cause with David Heathcote Amory. There was going to be no line-by-line scrutiny of the treaty; instead there would be long, windy, all-over-the-place discussion on these wretched "themes". Yes, Bill Cash came in. Amendments deal with the implementation into UK law, and these general discussions were concerned with policy. "In committee we are not concerned with policy." Cash, Clarke and Heathcote Amory. The Tories revive the three-in-a-bed scandals of yesteryear.

The cunning scheduling has reduced scrutiny from 20 days to 14 and, in theory, steered potential embarrassment from the Government to the Opposition. But their programme motion seems to have pushed the Liberal Democrats on to the Tory lobby. That is the scale of Gordon's achievement.

The cunning plan took a further battering on the question of the suspension of Standing Order 24. There's not enough room here to plumb the full depth of my ignorance on this subject. Suffice it to say it passed powers from Mr Speaker to the Government and was "a very severe erosion" of parliamentary power. Civil servants scribbled, notes flashed to and fro, points of order were raised in all parts of the House, and poor old Jim could only gaze calmly out over the shambles of Tory solidarity.