The Tories turn their weapons on themselves

Blunders over the banning of handguns have left the Government facing revolt. But it's not too late to change
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Yesterday's Commons debate on crime, thick with accusations of "gesture politics", demonstrated perfectly many of the strains of the now naked competition between the two main parties for the law and order vote. And it also demonstrated why we should not get too starry-eyed about the motives of the competitors. There has been a good deal of low politics on all sides of the struggle for electoral advantage in the aftermath of the murders at Dunblane.

The struggle has not yet been played out. By the simple act of deciding to exempt low-calibre weapons held in shooting clubs from its ban, the Government is now threatened with a parliamentary revolt and defeat at the hands of those, including the Opposition and some of its own backbenchers, pressing for a total ban. It's a vote it cannot want and could surely have avoided.

The Government's first mistake, it now appears, was to hand the issue of gun control, and whether there should be a ban, over to Lord Cullen in the first place. The centrepiece of Michael Howard's flagship bill in this session - and of his speech yesterday - starts from the premise that judges should not be the sole arbiters of minimum sentences for recidivist burglars and sex offenders. And while this has outraged the judges, there isn't a God-given reason why elected politicians shouldn't have the right to set minimum sentences. But this draconian assertion of Parliament's rights over the judiciary sits uneasily with the decision to hand a critical issue of public policy - the control of handguns - to a judge, however able and eminent.

It's easy to say that now, given that the Government anyway went further than Lord Cullen's recommendations, which were to leave intact the right to retain single-shot handguns at home. But the fact is that if the Government had immediately announced what it waited for eight months and a judge's inquiry to decide, it would have been widely seen as a radical, almost revolutionary step. Labour would have been less likely to demand that ministers went further; and it might have been easier, in the immediate aftermath of Dunblane, to accuse it of playing politics if it had.

But the second, and perhaps greater, mistake, surely, was not to allow a free vote. This cannot, it seems, be laid at the door of Michael Howard. Indeed more than once, during the debate on October 17, Mr Howard said that the question of whether there should be a free vote was not for him.

Instead, the decision to rule out a free vote was robustly relayed, on behalf of the whips, rather later that day. The business managers presumably judged that they would win when the House divided on the Bill. That isn't yet certain. At least four MPs, David Mellor, Robert Hughes, Hugh Dykes and Terry Dicks, are ready to defy the Government, probably at the report stage when there is a maximum chance of securing Commons support for an amendment proposing a total ban. But they believe that at least 10, and perhaps 12, Tory backbenchers are sympathetic. The battle for the hearts of minds of the six-to-eight undeclared Tory supporters of a total ban has scarcely yet been joined. At the very worst, the Government could face defeat, and just possibly (though unlikely) a confidence vote the day after.

And at best? Well. that's just it. Let's suppose, as the Government hopes, that it carries the day, by an inevitably narrow majority and on a three- line whip. Some victory. The Government will have defeated an amendment, supported by some Tories, including a former Home Office minister, for a total ban on handguns, whether in shooting clubs or not, as a response to the Dunblane tragedy.

This is hardly the kind of parliamentary coup the Prime Minister can decently celebrate over the customary glass of champagne in the whips' office. More to the point, it leaves the field clear for Labour to claim between now and polling day that the Tories failed to respond to the demands of the Dunblane parents and the wider public demand for a total ban on handguns.

Perhaps it was always too much to expect bi-partisan solidarity in the aftermath of Dunblane, given each party's determination to outflank the other on law and order. By all accounts, for example, the Prime Minister took some persuading - by Michael Forsyth, the Scottish Secretary, who was determined it should happen - that Tony Blair should accompany him on his own visit to Dunblane in March. But it's true, as Michael Howard gleefully pointed out yesterday, that Labour wasn't always in favour of a total ban on handguns held in shooting clubs as well as in the home.

Labour's conversion to it was deft populism, underpinned first by the Snowdrop campaigner Anne Pearston's affecting speech to the party conference in Blackpool, and secondly by the Police Federation's public support for a total ban. It is true, too, that the Liberal Democrats' conversion was even more precipitate.

But a measure's popularity doesn't make it wrong any more than it always makes it right. By handing a relatively trifling concession to a gun lobby which it has already exposed as something of a paper tiger, the Government has not only threatened to inflict an unnecessary wound on itself. It has failed to grant the full expiation which the cool reason of the Dunblane parents demands. But it's not too late; a free vote would go a long way to limiting the damage.

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