The outburst that got me expelled from the Commons was an instinctive response to a despicable justification for war
To my astonishment, I find myself excluded from my favourite habitat, the Commons chamber. It was not planned. The mini-drama evolved. The pressures of outrage and injustice inexorably clashed with the rigidity of parliamentary discipline.
Since I became an MP 25 years ago, I have deployed the forces of doublespeak, mealy-mouthed platitudes and cowardice to avoid confrontations with the Speaker. Earlier this year I gave advice to new members on this subject in my new book How To Be an MP. Following advice, however, has proved to be trickier that giving it.
Expulsion from the Commons is now almost always contrived. Once, it made headlines and could be damaging to individual MPs. Now it is used only to make a strong point.
In 2009, John McDonnell was suspended from the Commons for five days for seizing the mace and placing it on the Labour benches. He said: “My job is to represent my constituents. Today I was reasserting the values of democracy and the overriding sovereignty of parliament.” He was protesting against the expansion of Heathrow. The ceremonial mace rests on the table in front of the Speaker when the Commons is sitting and is a symbol of its authority, technically delegated from the crown.
Defying the Speaker is itself an ancient noble tradition. Since 1949, 28 MPs have been suspended from the house for failing to obey orders. Perhaps the most unjust expulsion was that of Dale Campbell-Savours, who branded Jeffrey Archer “a criminal” in 1995 over the Anglia TV shares affair. Refusing to retract, the Labour MP said: “I believe it is criminal activity and I will leave.” Campbell-Savours, who was made a peer in 2001, is probably the current record expellee with around a dozen exclusions. He used expulsion as a ploy, as did Tam Dalyell. He is convinced that it did him no electoral damage and was helpful in highlighting important issues.
So frequently was exclusion used in the 1990s, it lost its force. The media generally remain unimpressed. There are consequences beyond the five days’ suspension and loss of pay. Antagonising a Speaker is a kamikaze ploy. Backbenchers can swiftly become invisible, ignored in debates and passed over by the Speaker for opportunist questions.
McDonnell’s mace-wielding battlecry was well rehearsed and carefully manicured. I should have followed his example. My explosion of rage was the culmination of seven days of hot churning emotion. The defence secretary, Philip Hammond, brought it the boil by a despicable justification for war without end. “Four hundred and thirty British service personnel have given their lives, and we intend to protect that legacy by ensuring that the UK’s national security interests are protected in future by training and mentoring the Afghan national security forces,” he told the Commons.
In other words, more must die to protect the wisdom of politician’s decision to send others to die in vain. There is no threat to the UK from the Taliban to justify the loss of another soldier’s life. The UK’s exit from the hell of Afghanistan is being delayed so that it can be spun as a victory for politicians. My oral question suggested that: “The role of our brave soldiers is to act as human shields for ministers’ reputations. The danger to our soldiers has been prolonged by those on the frontbench who have the power to stop it.” I recalled the end of the second world war when “politicians lied and soldiers died”.
The Speaker asked me to make clear if I was saying a minister was lying. There was only one possible answer. My head was full of the deceptions of vain ministers since 2006, the avoidable 430 deaths and 2,000 soldiers who return home broken in mind and body.
“Yes, ministers had lied,” I said. Exclusion was inescapable. Media attention to the message was magnified beyond my previous 1,000 comments on this issue in parliament. An unpremeditated angry declaration of a simple truth has struck a chord that is resonating powerfully with the public.