By Paul Goodman
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Mark Pritchard has told the Commons this afternoon, during a debate which continues as I write, that Downing Street and the Whips tried in turn first to buy him off, and then to bully him, over his push to ban wild animals in circuses.
"I was offered incentive and reward on Monday and then it was ratcheted until last night when I was threatened. I had a call from the prime minister's office directly. I was told unless I withdraw this motion that the prime minister himself would look upon it very dimly indeed."
The incentive was apparently "a pretty trivial job", and he "had a message" for the Prime Minister and the whips about "bullying":
"I may just be a little council house lad from a very poor background but that background gives me a backbone, it gives me a thick skin. And I am not going to be kowtowed by the whips or even the prime minister of my country on an issue that I feel passionately about, that I have conviction about."
Since he spoke, the Conservative front bench, which had originally whipped Tory MPs to vote against a pro-ban motion tabled by Pritchard this afternoon, has conceded a free vote.
- I have tried to report Pritchard's claims and quotes soberly, but it's fair to say that the Commons this afternoon is turning into, well, a circus. This debate has everything: claims of bullying, Sheryll Murray holding up a picture of a donkey, Labour MPs trying to exploit Pritchard's remarks, Bob Stewart "ethnically cleansing" a bear from Bosnia, Whips changing their minds, Angie Bray telling tales of being entertained by a goat, claims that the Human Rights Act prevents a ban on circus animals, (what?), MPs playing to the animal rights gallery…and questionable behaviour by the Speaker (who ruled that a Government amendment to Pritchard's motion shouldn't be voted on.
- Pritchard's assault or counter-assault on the Prime Minister and the Whips will never be forgotten, let alone forgiven, by either. It's claimed that a motive for their opposition to Pritchard's motion is that they don't want backbench business committee debates to end with votes that decide Government policy: this is part of the emerging struggle between the Executive and legislature for control of the Commons. However, Pritchard isn't popular with the whips, having spoken out of turn out many times – and the Opposition will exploit his remarks shamelessly. But from now on, he'll be less wary of them than of Downing Street – and will be watching his back.
I'm told that no less senior a figure than Graham Brady, the 1922 Committee Chairman, tried yesterday to talk his fellow '22 Officer out of taking the Government on today.
6pm update: Pritchard's motion has just been carried unopposed.
Friday 12.45pm update from Jonathan Isaby:
David Cameron has just been asked about this matter at a press conference after the European Council meeting. He said that he did not feel that much of what he had heard and read about the communication between his office and Mark Pritchard was correct. His office was staffed by "gentle, reasonable people", he said, and that there was no "slabbering rottweiler" sat by his desk. He said that it was "a pity" that the gap couldn't be closed between the Government and Pritchard and his supporters over the "technicalities and timings" of a ban which they all in principle support, but that he was "profoundly relaxed" about the whole situation.