Mole backs his conscience

PRINCIPLE is a dangerous trait for a politician – but on Wednesday night, Ipswich MP Chris Mole wore his on his sleeve for all to see when he voted for the rebel amendment against military action in Iraq.

By Graham Dines

PRINCIPLE is a dangerous trait for a politician – but on Wednesday night, Ipswich MP Chris Mole wore his on his sleeve for all to see when he voted for the rebel amendment against military action in Iraq.

Mr Mole has represented Ipswich, quietly, for just 18 months, having won the by-election caused by the death of Jamie Cann.

For any new MP, the House of Commons presents a daunting prospect. And no matter what party you represent, you are expected to tow the official line – and especially if the party is in government.

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But to defy a three-line whip, and so soon after entering Westminster, is a heinous crime that takes a long time to be forgotten and forgiven.

The Government Chief Whip is Hilary Armstrong, a hard-nosed politician from the Labour heartland area of Durham North-West. She is no stranger to Ipswich, having represented the Government at Jamie Cann's funeral service.

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So when Chris Mole joined a host of distinguished privy councillors and backbench MPs from all parties – including Suffolk Coastal Tory John Gummer – to sign a Commons amendment stating that the case for war was not proven, Ms Armstrong went to work.

Chris Mole was hauled into see her, along with other Labour MPs, and told in no uncertain terms that he was required to back the Government.

In a one-to-one conversation just after 2pm on Wednesday afternoon, she read the Riot Act.

Fifteen minutes later, I met him in the Members' Lobby, obviously reeling from the bruising encounter. "We had a reasonable discussion on the consequences of my voting for a motion that did not have the support of the Government."

That was an understatement. Mr Mole was no doubt shaken. But after listening to the debate, during which some of the most eminent parliamentarians from all parties expressed their support for giving the weapons inspectors more time to help Saddam disarm, the Ipswich MP decided that personal principle was more important than voting for the Government against his conscience.

His decision would have come as no surprise to constituents who have written to him after the war. His standard reply states that the Government is right to seek the disarming of Saddam.

But the sting is in the tail. "I am against unilateral and pre-emptive strikes and wish to see a second United Nations resolution.

"If necessary, I would support action without such a resolution, only if there is overwhelming evidence from the inspectors and widespread international support."

Has Chris Mole irrevocably damaged his career? Probably not in the long term, but the Chief Whip is unlikely to support his advancement, should a vacancy arise or in any Government reshuffle, for a good few months yet.

In the meantime, the personal stock of the MP for Ipswich will not have been harmed one iota by his decision to join 199 other MPs – including more than 120 from his own party – to vote to give peace a chance.

ONE of the most unusual by-elections ever to be held in Britain takes place next month to fill a vacancy in the hereditary peers section of the House of Lords.

Under an agreement brokered in the first stages of the reform of the upper house in 1999, the Government allowed 91 hereditary peers to retain their places and to vote in the Lords until the future composition of the house was sorted out.

They were selected by fellow peers and now that one of them, the 13th Viscount of Oxfuird has died, a casual by-election is taking place. One of the candidates will by the 7th Earl of Effingham, a former Royal Navy officer who farms at Blackmore End near Braintree.

David Mowbray Algernon Howard, who succeeded his uncle to the Effingham title in 1996, is 62 and was educated at Fettes – where Tony Blair was a pupil – and the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth.

In his manifesto to fellow peers, the earl reminds them that until his eviction from the Lords in 1999, he was treasurer and an active member of the all party defence study group. His charity works includes the role of president of the Chelmer and Blackwater committee of the King George's Fund for Sailors and he has campaigned on behalf of war widows, victims of Gulf War syndrome and Far East prisoners of war.

He says he is a fully committed independent peer, with a proven track record of debating and committee work who made effective and useful contributions.

"It concerns me, and many others, that there is neither Naval nor ex-Service charity representation in the House."

The earl adds: "If successful, I would have the time and energy to commit myself wholeheartedly and be prepared to attend the House of Lords as a working peer."

Hereditary peers have until March 7 to submit their names to the Lords authorities and the full list of candidates will be published on March 11.

Following last month's votes in the Commons, when MPs could not decide what proportion of directly elected peers should be introduced into the upper house, it's likely whoever wins the by-election will retain his or her seat for a good few years.

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