By Paul Goodman
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The Nadine Dorries/Frank Field amendment on abortion and counselling will be considered in the Commons this evening. As Graeme Archer argued in the Daily Telegraph last weekend, there is no such thing as an independent person, in the sense of someone without prejudices, instincts, opinions and – in whatever manner – a worldview. This truth applies to relatively unvexed issues as much as unyieldingly contested ones as abortion. It may therefore be that the amendment, which in part seeks unbiased viewpoints on abortion, is questionable for this reason, and that MPs will therefore be tempted vote them down.
They may go into the No lobby for other reasons, too. Field is unpopular with many Labour MPs, and Dorries so with a lot of Conservative ones. Some feel, unfairly, that she is a publicity-crazed opportunist who won't or can't work with other people. Others will be nervous of crossing the abortion providers and lobby groups that oppose the amendment. More still will think it prudent to follow David Cameron's apparent about-turn. It's not uncommon for a Minister to write with guidance to MPs before a free vote, as Ann Milton has done – but less usual for the Whips to make the most of such letters, which it's claimed they're doing.
But before MPs make up their minds, they may want to ask a question. What would those who oppose the Dorries/Field amendment say in other circumstances? What would their reaction be were they asked whether a firm with a financial interest in a product should simultaneously offer consumers purchasing advice? Their condemnation would be unanimous. So why should a principle universally accepted everywhere else not apply to abortion? Evan Harris says that nothing should change "until [a review] has demonstrated that there is a problem", but the problem is not necessarily one of practice, but of principle.
Like Dorries, Harris has been all over the media. Like her, he is ill-disposed to compromise. Like her too, he attracts enemies. Indeed, the two might have designed as warring opposites for some Harry Potter franchise. One is blonde, female, Conservative, Christian and broadly pro-life; the other dark, male, Liberal Democrat, atheist, and nicknamed Dr Death. The pair are united only by having worked in the NHS – though not together – and by taking what they do with intense seriousness. A coalition in which served as Ministers wouldn't last a day.
However, there is one big and important difference between them. Dorries won her seat at the last election, while Harris lost his. But while the elected Tory cuts no ice with Downing Street, the unelected LibDem seems to cut a great deal. He seems to have leaned on Nick Clegg who leaned on David Cameron who leaned on the Department of Health – hence Ms Milton's letter. Dorries is adamant that Cameron was previously set to support the amendment. Labour MPs are claiming today that the vote will be close, though this may be a ruse.
It isn't clear why Clegg has been so responsive to pressure. Perhaps he's strongly opposed to the amendment in principle; perhaps the internal politics of the LibDems have a strong bearing on his view. But any rate, Harris has clearly been a force in the discussion, as he was during the debate on Andrew Lansley's original health proposals. Most Conservative MPs believe that they must put up with much they don't like for the sake of the Coalition. But why, as Stewart Jackson wrote recently, should this extend to conscience matters. Why should a failed LibDem candidate hold sway over the Department of Health?