The Sketch: How the bendiness of the Hunting Bill left MPs at the edge of knowledge

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The Independent Online

"Our position today is simple." Alun Michael got his only laugh of the day. The position was so confused that no one knew what was going on. Really, no one.

"Our position today is simple." Alun Michael got his only laugh of the day. The position was so confused that no one knew what was going on. Really, no one.

The Speaker's intellectual inferiority actually meant something as he bumbled through the business of the day. He did and said what the clerks told him to do and say. Maybe they were right in what they told him, maybe they were wrong, but that was, as Speaker says so often, "not a matter for the Chair".

Would the Parliament Act be applicable to the Hunting Bill? It was a simple question but no one had a definitive answer. Last-minute amendments, sensationally announced half an hour before the debate was due to start, proposed delaying the ban for a year (in one government amendment) or two (in another government amendment). This threw the House into a confusion the like of which we'd never seen before.

In the corridors and lobbies of the Palace, MPs would begin confidently, even pompously, with their understanding of the situation. One question would scupper them: "Are Timing Amendments part of the Bill or not?" Even those who can bluff their way through the difference between amendments, messages, suggestions and considerations - even those knowledgeable types - were unable to say whether the Parliament Act would be applicable at the end of the day's Hunting Bill. They began authoritatively and finished ignominiously with: "I'm at the edge of my knowledge, frankly." Oh, they all know what they think now, this morning, after they've found out what everyone else thinks - but there when it mattered, when the decisions were being made and the votes were being taken everyone had a different story.

If you want to know what rock our democracy is founded on - remember those MPs milling about gossiping, conferring, consulting, urgently asking how they should be voting and where and when and what it would mean. If they voted the way the whips were telling them would an 18-month extension actually produce a ban in three months? Or the opposite? The lack of knowledge led to shocking scenes in the tea room. "I don't trust you! We don't trust you!" the government chief whip was barracked by backbenchers.

They felt that the timing amendments were some sort of trick. They felt it was a device by Downing Street.

Why did Tony Blair want the ban delayed until 2007.

What bendiness was this? What twisted, slippery chicanery were they letting themselves in for? Backbenchers know what to expect from the Prime Minister's straightforward, categorical assertions and undertakings. As a result, the official proposal for delay was defeated by the most enormous majority. Just over 40 MPs voted for it. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of hunting, the significant thing to come out of the House yesterday was the extent of the backbench rejection of their leader.

"Trust" for Tony Blair now has the dark vitality of "Sleaze" for the Tories. Or so his back bench are telling us.

Simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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