SPEAKER CONFUSED? THEY ALL WERE....London Editor Jason Groves watched as ministers used every trick in the book to engineer their favoured result DISARRAY gives too orderly an impression of proceedings. Chaos is too tidy a word for it. Shambles is the only word that comes close to summing up the final day of Parliamentary deliberation on the Hunting Bill.
Whatever your view on the rights and wrongs of the hunting ban, this was not a day that cast the mother of Parliaments in a good light.
"Can someone find out what's going on?" Speaker Michael Martin cried at one point. It was a very good question - to which no one seemed to have an answer. The Speaker is supposed to know what is going on, at all times. You could hardly blame him getting confused yesterday. Parliamentary procedure, rarely straightforward at the best of times, was stretched to breaking point.
In short, the Government, in the shape of Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael, had engaged in an elaborate charade designed to pin the blame for an early hunting ban on the House of Lords. "It is the House of Lords that has chosen confrontation and I regret that," Mr Michael declared piously. But his backbenchers were deeply suspicious - and said so.
A succession of anti-hunting Labour MPs stood up to demand guarantees that ministers were not trying to trick them into voting for something that would invalidate the use of the Parliament Act and take the whole process back to square one. It was touching to see the faith that Labour MPs had in the party leadership.
The scenes in the Commons tearoom minutes later, when the Speaker called a time out to consider a sheaf of last-minute amendments, resembled a low rent pub at throwing out time.
On the other side of Whitehall the French President Jacques Chirac was contributing to the debate in his own inimitable way. Wild boar hunting is popular in France and it is hard to imagine M Chirac getting into such a tangle.
The French President helpfully referred to hunting as a "great British tradition", adding to the discomfort of Tony Blair, who was standing next to him. For his part, a shifty looking Mr Blair declared: "Despite the passionate views on either side, I think the majority of people would have preferred a compromise."
It was the very essence of reasonableness, but at that very moment his Government was forcing through a Bill that was the very opposite of compromise.
Things were much simpler in the Lords where peers viewed the Government's proposed delay to implementing the ban as a politically motivated trick, designed to get Mr Blair off the hook in the run-up to the General Election.
The Labour baroness Ann Mallalieu urged peers to throw it out and let Mr Blair face the consequences of his actions. "The choice is a simple one," she said. "Do we throw away our principles or do we vote to support this grubby little banning Bill?"
Peers were already furious about the Government's behaviour and the final vote was never in doubt.
Shortly afterwards the Speaker confirmed that the Parliament Act would apply to the Bill. And with that the first chapter in this wretched row was finally closed.