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.
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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
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
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
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''.