Labour Whips given a good lashing

IT'S not a good time to be a Labour whip. Government Chief Whips are always loathed by their own MPs but this week the current holder of the post made such a cock-up of a key vote, that the Prime Minister was left looking more at sea than usual.

IT'S not a good time to be a Labour whip. Government Chief Whips are always loathed by their own MPs but this week the current holder of the post made such a cock-up of a key vote, that the Prime Minister was left looking more at sea than usual.

To cap it all, a junior whip called Tony Cunningham - who bellows repeatedly at the opposition - was torn off such a strip by the Speaker during Prime Minister's Questions that he is likely to join his boss Hilary Armstrong, sent backing to the backbenches in disgrace.

Mr Cunningham was standing and giving his impression of a banshee when Speaker Michael Martin suddenly snapped. “There is a Whip shouting next to the Chair,” he said interrupting Mr Cameron.

“It happens every Wednesday and I tell him: get away from the Chair and do not shout when the Leader of the Opposition is speaking. That is not a whip's duty. He has other duties and he should attend to them.”

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To which Mr Cameron remarked: “My advice to the whip in question, given current circumstances, would be to get away from the Whips Office. That would probably be a better move.”

Ms Armstrong herself, you will recall, was the object of Mr Cameron's wrath last December on the first day he took on the job, when she did her usual job of screaming across the Chamber like a maladjusted child. He asked her to stop - such temerity silenced the Commons and had Labour MPs rejoicing at her humiliation

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So when the Government this week lost a key vote by one vote after Ms Armstrong advised the Prime Minister he could go home because their were enough MPs present to vote through clauses on the race hate Bill, Mr Cameron couldn't help having a go at Question Time.

“She must be the first Chief Whip in history to put the Prime Minister in the frame for losing a key vote - which is an interesting career move, to say the least.”

Even the Prime Minister, not noted for a great sense of humour, was able to enjoy the joke. But I doubt if Ms Armstrong will be around too much longer in a job which exists to whip MPs through the voting lobbies to ensure the Government's business is carried - in part through blackmail because, it is said, the Chief Whip knows all the foibles and extra marital indiscretions of her own party's supporters.

What defeated Ms Armstrong and Mr Blair this week was more Labour rebels than usual combining with Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Nationalist and Ulster MPs to vote down Government moves to overturn House of Lords amendments.

To make matters worse, 25 Labour MPs - loyalists all - had been given permission by Ms Armstrong to campaign in the Dunfermline & Fife West by-election on the day of the vote.

There can only be one reason for this, given that Labour is defending a majority of 11,562. The next door constituency is held by Chancellor Gordon Brown, who doesn't want any upsets on the north bank of the River Forth, and therefore wants a good Labour showing.

However inadvertent, the Chancellor added to the Prime Minister's discomfort, fuelling speculation that Mr Blair is losing the plot and should handover now to his eager Chancellor

IT seems the Conservatives are serious about splitting from the majority European People's Party-European Democrats grouping in the Strasbourg parliament.

Former Conservative leader William Hague, who is now foreign affairs spokesman at Westminster for the Tories, said he was optimistic that the 27-strong Conservative delegation to the European Parliament will soon create a new Eurosceptic party in the 732-member EU legislature.

Mr Hague said there were “initial grounds for encouragement” after he had talks with various political groupings in the parliament EPP-ED leader, German Christian Democrat Hans-Gert Poettering, has tried to convince the Conservatives not to defect.

Conservative Party leader David Cameron pledged to take his European politicians out of the centre-right EPP when he was elected leader last year and his European. His number one in the East of England Geoffrey Van Orden said yesterday: “ I am fully supportive of David Cameron's intention that the British Conservatives should create a new Group in the European Parliament that would more accurately reflect the views of the British people and our core values and beliefs in relation to Europe - respect for national sovereignty; opposition to further political integration, including the Constitution; a natural Atlanticism; a focus on economic policies that will deliver growth and competitiveness; and reduction in regulation and interference from Brussels and Strasbourg.

“Our future partners will include serious parties of government and definitely not the extremists that those opposed to our break with the federalist EPP have purposefully suggested.”

RAYLEIGH'S Conservative MP Mark Francois, who is coordinating the cross-party campaign to save the Essex Police Force from being merged with others in the East of England, challenged Tony Blair at Prime Minister's Questions to honour his commitment to listen to community protests against the creation of super constabularies.

Commenting after Mr Blair's response that he had already received a number of representations on the issue and that he would treat Mr Francois's question as another one, Mr Francois said: “I thought it was important to use this opportunity to press Tony Blair directly on behalf of our police force and to try and drive home the strong feeling and cross-party support in Essex on this issue.

“I hope that he really will listen and that the Essex constabulary will be allowed to continue to stand alone as a strategic force in its own right.”

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