By Chris Yandell
Southern Daily Echo – 7 February 2011
He has always been known as a man not afraid to speak his mind. But Hampshire MP Julian Lewis has emerged as one of the most vociferous critics of the Conservative-led Government. He has already voted against the Coalition’s huge hike in university tuition fees and last week joined two of his party colleagues and the Labour Opposition in opposing plans to sell or lease large areas of woodland, including the New Forest.
The New Forest East MP has warned that the disposal of Britain’s ancient forests to private owners or charitable trusts could alienate natural Tory voters and create what he describes as a "poll tax moment" for David Cameron and Nick Clegg. He blamed advisers for coming up with a policy that did not appear in either Tory or Liberal Democrat manifestos. But the MP denied that he was staging a concerted campaign against the Government, saying he was voting on an issue-by-issue basis:
"I’m rebelling on nasty surprises because that’s precisely what they are,” said Dr Lewis. “Large numbers of people won’t go along with the sale of forests in the same way that large numbers of people didn’t go along with the community charge.
"There are certain issues on which you can argue until you’re blue, red or – in the case of the Liberal Democrats – yellow in the face, but you won’t get the public to agree. The community charge was one such issue and the sale of forests is another."
The community charge, popularly known as the poll tax, was then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s idea to replace rates. Its unpopularity led to massive demonstrations around the country and is widely credited with causing her to resign in 1990.
Romsey and Southampton North MP Caroline Nokes has also pledged to vote against the forest sell-off.
Over the weekend junior Cabinet Office Minister Mark Harper was confronted by protesters as he left a public meeting in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, where he had been defending the sell-off. Angry demonstrators pelted him with eggs and attacked a police van to try to prevent him leaving.
Dr Lewis claims that Ministers should consult more with Tory MPs to avoid future public relations disasters. He said:
“The Government would do well to use its backbench MPs as a sounding board to prevent it blundering or sleepwalking into certain situations. The problem with coalition governments is that they tear up their election promises, and MPs – if they are to remain true to their conscience – must examine these on an issue-by-issue basis.”
Dr Lewis, a former Shadow Defence Minister, denied that his opposition stemmed from being passed over for a job in the Government:
"I felt extremely badly treated at the time but I can see now that it was the correct decision,"
"I’d have had to resign as a Defence Minister over the decision to postpone signing a contract on the renewal of the nuclear deterrent until after the next General Election."