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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 December, 2003, 12:30 GMT
Taking on Prime Minister Thatcher

By Ollie Stone-Lee
BBC News Online political staff

Margaret Thatcher and Bernard Weatherill
Thatcher never wanted Weatherill as Commons speaker
There were few people who dared to boss around Margaret Thatcher but the speaker of the House of Commons seems to have been one of them.

As prime minister, Baroness Thatcher tried to block Lord (Bernard) Weatherill's election to the post and his private papers give a glimpse of some of the clashes he had with her ministers.

Such confrontations no doubt happen under governments of all leaders and colours but their details are usually kept shrouded in secrecy in Parliament's corridors and back rooms.

Lord Weatherill has decided not to write his memoirs, but his papers lodged at the University of Kent in Canterbury reveal the behind-the-scenes rows as he tried to defend MP's rights in the Commons.

In letters to friendly politicians, Lord Weatherill details the arguments he had with the government ahead of the "black glove" affair, when he faced press criticism thought to emanate from within the Conservative Party.

'Bypassing Parliament'

In May 1988, he writes to Conservative peer Lord Nugent: "I'm afraid it is true that since Christmas I have had to make a stand against a tendency to bypass us here."

The same month, he wrote to former Labour leader Michael Foot, who had praised his stance: "In the weeks since Christmas I have had to struggle to persuade HMG (Her Majesty's Government) to face up to its responsibilities to the House and some pretty rough things have been said - and threatened."

Lord Weatherill as speaker of the House of Commons
Weatherill was criticised after rowdy Commons debates
In the file are Lord Weatherill's notes on the kind of clashes to which he was referring.

On Monday 15 February, he says he had to insist Margaret Thatcher made a Commons statement on agriculture policy after her return from weekend talks in Brussels.

The prime minister wished to make the statement on Tuesday but as Lord Weatherill wanted it on the same day as a farms debate, he had to "insist that either she or the minister for agriculture come to make statement before debate".

"The PM did it with v.bad grace," he notes.

Mace incident

The same week, Lord Weatherill says he threatened an emergency debate to get the government to give more time for debate on new education plans.

Eventually ministers did concede an extra day, he says, in a sign of wrangling that would not surprise any whip.

And on 7 March, Lord Weatherill was stepping in again as Baroness Thatcher and other ministers planned to "launch" their new inner city policy away from Parliament.

It seems to me that the slightest 'opposition' or independence on the part of members (or even speakers) is considered unacceptable
Lord Weatherill
"Again I had to threaten an SO20 debate" to get a statement, he says.

It was after Labour backbencher Ron Brown deliberately dropped the mace in an especially raucous Commons debate that the press criticisms of Lord Weatherill began to emerge.

As well as apparently holding private meetings with newspaper political editors, the then speaker made waves as he broke with tradition and went on television to defend himself.

He rejected reports that he planned to retire early and said no speaker should be in anybody's pocket.

Wakeham's complaints

His defence prompted a wave of letters of support from politicians and voters.

The incident seems to have ended some of the speaker's niggles with ministers but the problems were to return in March the following year, his papers suggest.

After a private meeting with then Leader of the House of Commons John - now Lord - Wakeham, Lord Weatherill worries in a handwritten note that he will have to defend the rights of backbenchers again.

Lord Wakeham, former Leader of the House of Commons
Wakeham threatened to make announcements outside Parliament
"It seems to me that the slightest 'opposition' or independence on the part of members (or even of speakers) is considered unacceptable," he says.

Lord Wakeham had come to see the speaker to complain he was allowing too many private notice questions from MPs, as well as voicing concern about the number of questions allowed in ministers' statements.

The speaker says he was not sure if Lord Wakeham had come on his own initiative or was "under instructions".

'Blew up'

In the meeting, Lord Weatherill argued there was a shortage of speakers for other Commons debates.

"It seemed to me foolish to put a brake on those who wished to question a minister and then to give his whips the chore of scouring the building begging members to participate in debates in which they had little interest," he says.

At this Lord Wakeham "blew up", he says, stating that most debates were in any case irrelevant and "I was merely 'massaging the egos of backbenchers'."

When Lord Weatherill suggested MPs should get the chance to question ministers on issues worrying voters, it appears only to have aggravated the dispute.

The Commons leader "then said that if I persisted in this HMG would be driven to make statements outside the House and not to members (of Parliament)".

He also complained that some ministers were being made late for news conferences, meaning their Commons statements were misinterpreted in the press.

Lord Weatherill adds: "Altogether an unhappy half hour! It was in vain that I explained that it was the duty of backbenchers to put any government 'on trial' and to provide a forum for the justification of policies."

Time wasting?

Ironically, in the wake of Lord Wakeham's criticism that debates were getting too long, the next complaint from a minister was that one had been cut short too early.

Chief whip David - now Lord - Waddington - complains in May 1989 that the speaker had suggested Tory MPs on whips' orders had been time wasting in an attempt to delay a key debate on Europe.

"Allegations of that nature are extremely damaging politically," he says in a letter to Lord Weatherill, insisting there was no justification for the idea.

Lord Waddington, former chief whip
Waddington feared unjust claims had been made
In his reply, Lord Weatherill says he was not suggesting the whips were party to time wasting.

"However, I do have to tell you bluntly that I received intelligence before going into the chamber yesterday, that such an attempt might be made from your side."

Such incidents, under any government, usually stay well hidden from the public glare.

Questioned by MPs last year, Lord Wakeham quipped: "I have done all the dirty tricks that are known. I could write a book about them, but I will not."

A book might be written by current speaker Michael Martin, who last year endured the kind of press criticisms, rumoured to come from ministers, suffered by his predecessor.

That episode showed the tensions between government and Parliament, so evident in Lord Weatherill's papers, are a part of life in Westminster.


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