A powerful and compelling performance

PARLIAMENTRAY SKETCHBy GRAHAM DINES in the House of CommonsMPs yesterday reclaimed Parliament for their electors as the rightful forum of the nation's democracy by setting out on a marathon session to give backing for bombing Iraq.


By GRAHAM DINES in the House of Commons

MPs yesterday reclaimed Parliament for their electors as the rightful forum of the nation's democracy by setting out on a marathon session to give backing for bombing Iraq.

Less than 24 hours after Robin Cook, the architect of the controversial modernised working hours for MPs, quit the Government, the Commons tore up the new rule book to debate military action in a session unlike anything witnessed for more than two decades.

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When the Commons is full, there's nowhere for 200 MPs to sit. Many, including Labour's Chris Mole (Ipswich), Peter Mandelson, the redoubtable Gwynneth Dunwoody, and junior foreign office minister Ben Bradley fled to the sanctuary of the upper gallery to gaze down on proceedings, along with the Prime Minister's wife, assorted diplomats, refugees from the House of Lords, and the first tranche of members of the public who had queued for hours to be present.

Among those who did get a seat was Suffolk Coastal Tory John Gummer - a co-signature of an amendment to keep the UN route open - who looked distinctly unimpressed with the Prime Minister's argument for military action soon.

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As for Tony Blair, he acted like a wounded tiger. He fully recognised the gravity of the situation he faced with his Commons majority threatened and ministers resigning - he said the main parties in the House were divided.

"We're not," taunted the Liberal Democrats. Now Saddam Hussein may be public enemy number one, closely followed by French president Jacque Chirac. But Mr Blair saved his most wilting scorn for Charles Kennedy's party. "United in opportunism and error," snarled the Prime Minister in his most savage put-down of political opponents in nearly six years as Prime Minister.

"I do not disrespect the views opposed to me," he said, but his look of utter disdain towards the Liberal Democrats told a different story.

Tony Blair's 45 minutes at the despatch box were powerful and superlative – this from a man who at the weekend looked as though he was wilting under the pressure of French treachery, Labour hostility, and the opposition of millions of ordinary men and women.

"This is a tough choice. But it is a stark one: to stand British troops down and turn back; or to hold firm in the course we have set. I believe we stand firm."

His speech was an unsubtle attempt to get those Labour MPs concerned at human rights issues to back him against an evil Saddam who had the tongues cut out of political opponents and left them to bleed to death in the street tied to a lamp-post because they dared voice opposition to his regime.

Tony Blair was no doubt relieved to have the backing of the Conservatives. But Iain Duncan Smith, who again told the House that he once served in the Army, gave such a weak and singularly uninspiring speech, even by his standards, that most people started muttering after five minutes.

Charles Kennedy made no new friends as he set out why the Lib Dems won't bite the bullet, and then MPs set out on eight hours of debate before the 10pm vote.

Backbenchers called by the Speaker were limited to just eight minutes in an attempt to cut out repetition. And they clamoured to take part in this rare opportunity to prove to the Government that the House of Commons still does matter and should not be ignored.




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