When the FT broke the news that a rebellion was brewing on Conservative benches over a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses, we never expected the rebellion would get this interesting.
Number 10′s resistance to the idea is based on worries the government could face a legal challenge under the EU services directive if it goes ahead with a ban. But it could have essentially ignored the debate, which was a backbench motion which carries no legislative power.
So it came as a shock when the Tories ordered a three-line whip on the vote: effectively instructing all their MPs to turn up and vote against it.
Mark Pritchard, who brought the motion, said Downing Street had even offered him a job in return for dropping it. He made an extraordinarily frank speech to the Commons today:
It has been in interesting last few days.
If I offered to amend my motion or drop my motion or not call a vote on this motion… I was offered reward, an incentive.
It was a pretty trivial job, as most of the ones I have had – until at least probably 30 minutes from now – are.
But I was offered incentive and reward on Monday, then it was ratcheted up to last night when I was threatened.
I had a call from the prime minister’s office directly, and I was told unless I withdraw this motion, that the prime minister himself said that he would look upon it very dimly indeed.
Well I have a message for the whips and for the prime minister of our country, and I didn’t pick a fight with the prime minister of our country, but I have a message: 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 on an issue that I feel passionately about.
Another slightly surreal intervention came from former colonel Bob Stewart, who started talking about a time when he saved a bear from starvation in Bosnia.
It’s all very stirring stuff, and Pritchard’s intransigence eventually persuaded the whips to drop their three-line instructions and allow a free vote instead. But it remains a source of complete bafflement as to why Number 10 has taken such a strong line on a debate it could easily have ignored.
6.20pm: The motion has been carried by MPs. It’s not binding on the government but is a serious statement of intent.