NOW here's an odd little postscript to last week's historic vote in

the European Parliament which opened the EU's doors to Norway, Sweden,

Finland, and Austria.

Loading article content

Postscript might not be the correct description. The British

Conservatives prefer the term ''grace note''.

It came, this note, in the form of a bizarre press release after the

vote had been won comfortably by the pro-enlargement lobby. It was

headed: ''O'Hagan Hands in his Caber'' and sought to bid a fond and

humorous farewell to one of the European Parliament's eccentrics, Lord

(Charles) O'Hagan.

Lord O'Hagan, former Whip in the Lords, was known for not very much in

the way of parliamentary work in London or Strasbourg and is probably

best remembered for his questions about indoor caber tossing and the

standardisation of keyholes to stop people prying on each other.

He always claimed that publicity for questions of this kind helped to

debunk the kind of myths which Euro sceptics like to spread about the

community.

But there was a darker aspect to this curious matter.

The Conservatives' press released described Lord O'Hagan as the

''retiring'' Tory Euro-MP for Devon and said he had ''resigned'' earlier

in the week.

In fact Lord O'Hagan had not been seen in Strasbourg or Brussels

parliamentary sessions for months. Sometime last year, after his second

marriage collapsed, he made public his decision not to seek re-election.

The reason for his sudden disappearance from the scene was reportedly an

upheaval in his private life leading to a prolonged dispute with his

second wife, a former professional assistant.

As worried party managers tried to predict the size of the Yes vote in

Wednesday's crucial division, the British Tories appeared to be seized

by growing panic. The cause of this alarm was their calculation that

there was a possibility -- remote, but still a possibility -- of the

vote being lost narrowly.

This, after all, was the most important division for five years in the

parliament. For the biggest enlargement in the history of the EU, there

had to be 259 votes cast in favour.

The Tories, in particular, were horrified at the spectre of the vote

possibly being lost by just one. If that happened, they speculated,

probably correctly, fingers would immediately be pointed at the one

British Tory who was certain not to vote.

At that point, Lord O'Hagan was still constitutionally entitled to

press his electronic button, despite his stated intention to quit

politics.

For this reason, he was approached by the so-called ''men in grey

suits''. Party managers asked him to make his ''retirement'' official

and formal. Lord O'Hagan resigned there and then. That was last Monday,

only two days before the vote was called.

Later that day, at the start of the European Parliament's final

pre-election plenary, Mr Egon Klepsch, EP president, officially

announced Lord O'Hagan's resignation. The effect was to lower the total

required for an absolute majority of sitting members in favour of

enlargement from 260 to 259.

But there was a bigger perceived advantage for the Tories. If the vote

was lost, they could not be accused of failing to show a 100% turnout.

In the event the pessimism of all observers, pundits included, proved

to be wildly misplaced. By the time the fourth vote -- for Sweden -- was

called, there were 461 votes in favour. So the panic which had enveloped

the Tories was also seen to be unjustified.

But why was the party so desperate to make Lord O'Hagan a non-player?

The answer is in his colourful background.

Everyone loves a lord, especially an eccentric Old Etonian who was

once pageboy to the Queen. But the last thing the struggling Tories need

now is one of their number going the way of others whose private lives

have provoked ridicule of the Prime Minister's Back to Basics

philosophy. And by all accounts -- i.e. politicians' gossip -- Lord

O'Hagan's personal problems are the stuff of a tabloid editor's dreams.

On Monday, his rocky private life and associated health problems

caused him to be ''disappeared'' as party managers sought to write him

out of the script. His colleagues explained privately that Lord O'Hagan

had suffered a nervous breakdown.

His disappearance would probably have gone unremarked in all the

excitement of the vote if the press release marking his farewell had not

sought to draw attention to it. It referred to his ''ill health''

forcing his withdrawal from the coming elections and recounted some of

his more eccentric interests such as indoor caber tossing.

But from the party leadership there was, significantly, no comment.

The only friendly words came from an old friend, Tom Spencer, another

Tory Euro-MP, who was quoted saying Lord O'Hagan ''cared perhaps too

much for his county, his country and for honesty in politics''.