Britain is poised to approve China's application today to become a licensed ivory trader in spite of protests from environmental and animal welfare groups and nearly 150 MPs, and Labour MPs are pinning the blame on Gordon Brown.
The minister taking the immediate responsibility for the vote, at a UN meeting in Geneva, is Joan Ruddock, the junior minister responsible for wildlife in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). But Labour backbenchers were furious that Ms Ruddock, a highly-respected MP with a strong record on environmental protection, appears to have been given orders from No 10 not to risk upsetting China by opposing the bid, which critics say will lead to a substantial increase in elephant poaching across Africa and Asia.
Alan Simpson, an environmentalist and Labour MP, said: "This is obscene. This isn't a licence to trade. It's a licence to kill, and Britain should not be party to it."
Labour MPs said Ms Ruddock has been handed a "poisoned chalice" by Mr Brown. "Whenever there's dirty work to be done, he's never around, but his paw prints are on this," said one angry Labour MP.
Ms Ruddock said in a statement that the final decision would come at the standing committee of the Convention on International trade in Endangered Species (Cites). "The final decisions will be a collective European one," she added. Her department had suggested the actual vote decision would be made by Trevor Salmon, the Defra official at the meeting.
Peter Ainsworth, the shadow Environment Secretary, said: "It is no good ministers hiding behind officials. The officials should be given clear instructions that this is a case where Britain could act to do something positive for international wildlife protection. I guess they hoped it would go through with little attention, but they are not going to get away with it."