Hats off, ready for the July round of executions

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The Independent Online
Last Thursday the House adjourned at 7.55pm following a short debate on hats. It had been inaugurated by Ms Margaret Moran, the Labour member for Luton South. For the occasion she wore a fetching hat herself, and had persuaded several of her women colleagues to do likewise. She had further secured the ruling of the authorities that it was in order for women to wear hats in the Chamber. There had previously been some doubt about the matter. There is still, apparently, doubt about whether men can wear hats.

I do not see why there should be any doubt at all. I have viewed numerous Victorian prints or pictures of the Chamber a sea of top hats. True, a member is still, I think, required to wear a hat if raising a point of order during a division, and a battered topper is, or used to be, retained for this purpose. But if the argument is that hats may be worn only on such special occasions, to distinguish the wearer from other members, why, women may wish to raise points of order just as much as men. In any case, Dame Irene Ward used regularly to wear hats that would have sunk the Bismarck. The argument accordingly falls, and men should be confirmed in the right to wear hats which, in my opinion, they have never lost.

That is all I have to say about hats for this week, except to note that Ms Moran, in her encomium on headgear, omitted to recall George Orwell's observation that there was a time when a man would be, in his phrase, hooted in the streets if he was not wearing a hat. I have never been clear what being hooted in the streets actually involves. And I am not sure that I believe Orwell anyway, on this at any rate.

But the hats debate was significant in that it showed that life at Westminster was very different from the life of politics - grim, tense, bad-tempered - as depicted on television and in the newspapers. To the Whips and other party managers it is July that is the cruellest month. "O Lord," they pray in the Crypt Chapel, "just get us through to the summer recess, and we shall be all right until the autumn."

The conferences usually raise the ratings of the parties and always those of the leaders. That is because they are on television for a whole week. In 1965-70 they proved Sir Edward Heath's principal means of salvation. In the preceding months there were stories saying the Tories believed Ted had proved a grievous disappointment and that they had all made a terrible mistake.

Then, at the seaside in October, he would make a speech. Sometimes, indeed, he would make two speeches, a cruel and unusual punishment if ever there was one, as much for him as for the rest of us. But they served their purpose. There would be standing ovations contrived by the party managers: the historical origin, by the way, of the modern standing ovation. Phoenix would have risen once again from the ashes. Everybody would go on to write: "Heath... stamped his authority on the party... critics routed... no possibility of a November challenge to his leadership..."

July is also the month of speculation about a reshuffle, of which we have had a good deal, notably to the effect that Ms Mo Mowlam will leave Northern Ireland for higher or anyway different things, and that Lord Falconer of the Silly Dome will join the Cabinet. It is the month too when the Whips threaten their charges with being made to sit into August if they do not behave themselves. As Thursday's early adjournment shows - there have been several others like it - there has been no need for them to go in for that ploy this year.

This may be because of Mr Tony Blair's huge majority, Mrs Ann Taylor's and Mrs Margaret Beckett's skilled guidance of business or the lack of any such real business. Oddly enough, Mrs Taylor and Mrs Beckett are top of the lists for execution that are given in the papers. I do not propose to speculate further along these lines. Reshuffle stories always turn out wrong, because one incorrect guess skews the whole picture. But, most of all, July is the month of plots and rumours of plots. It was not only Sir Edward who suffered from them. So did Harold Wilson throughout the same period. So also did Mr John Major, until he put an end to the speculation about his future by putting himself up for the leadership (unconstitutionally, in my opinion) while remaining prime minister. He failed to win the support of a third of his party and was immediately hailed as the winner of a crushing victory. Paradoxically, the prime minister who really was kicked out - Margaret Thatcher in 1990 - was not the subject of July rumours, though a lot of Tories thought by then that she had gone clean off her head.

The results of the European elections dispelled the July rumours that might have afflicted Mr William Hague. They had already done the rounds. They may still revive if the Government wins the by-election in the Eddisbury constituency formerly held by Sir Alastair Goodlad, who is off to govern New South Wales, in fact the whole of Australia, though I do not suppose he and his delightful wife will do more than dispense his usual generous drinks and generally sow the good seed.

It is being reported that the Tories are in greater peril at this by- election than most people thought. Mr Blair's recent promise on the abolition of fox-hunting is apparently the cause of dancing in the streets owing to the dislike in which the local hunt is held by the populace. Not having been to the constituency, I am not sure. What is certain is that Mr Blair gave the promise in extraordinary circumstances.

The manifesto promised "a free vote in Parliament on whether hunting with hounds should be banned by legislation". After some initial doubt, the vote was duly held and carried by an overwhelming majority. The private member's Bill was then lost because the Government refused to make time for it. Roy Jenkins, by contrast, helped on their way the private members' Bills on divorce, abortion and homosexual law reform. In Question Time Mr Blair was asked whether he proposed to abolish fox-hunting.

My mother taught me not only that is was impermissible to call anyone else a liar but also that the very word "lie" was simply not employed in polite society. Accordingly I follow her injunction and confine myself to observing that Mr Blair stated that which was not the case. He did not, as he asserted, vote for Mr Mike Foster's Bill at any stage. Nor was the Bill "blocked by Conservatives in the House of Commons and in the Lords". As Mr Jack Straw - no Jenkins he! - remarked: "I do not see a role for government. I am well aware there are strong opinions on this, but it is not uppermost in the minds of the majority of the population."

Why then the shift? The official account is that Mr Blair changed his mind or, rather, his approach but unfortunately omitted to tell anyone else. The gloss put on it is that, with his genius for politics, he saw an opportunity to appeal to Labour both Old and New. In that case, he would surely have gone to the trouble of getting the story straight - or of instructing someone else to get it straight on his behalf. My theory is that he was just making things up as he went along. Alternatively he is, in the old Tory phrase, losing his grip. But he has no need to worry, or not yet. Even in July, no one is planning to reshuffle Mr Blair.