Health ministers will vote against calls to change the advice given to women considering an abortion in an attempt to defeat a move aimed at reducing terminations.
After a week of conflicting signals from the Government, the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley and his three ministers will oppose plans to offer women independent counselling to be discussed by the Commons next week.
Last weekend, the Department of Health signalled its support for a plan by the Tory MP Nadine Dorries and Labour's Frank Field for women to be given the option of independent counselling. Ms Dorries hoped that preventing advice being given by organisations that carry out abortions – like Marie Stopes and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service – could cut the number of terminations by about 60,000 a year.
But Downing Street overruled the Health Department after protests from Nick Clegg, who made clear the Liberal Democrats would not "sign off" Government backing for the proposal. Although there will be a free vote on what has traditionally been regarded as a "conscience issue", Anne Milton, a Health minister, will write to Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs this weekend saying that Health ministers will oppose the Dorries plan. They will consider what advice should be offered to women during consultations.
David Cameron will join Mr Clegg in voting against the move. Government insiders denied this was a U-turn, claiming the mixed signals were "more of a cock-up than a conspiracy."
The confusion was blamed on the Department of Health's decision to issue a statement saying it was "developing proposals to introduce independent counselling for women seeking abortion". Yvette Cooper, a Labour Equalities spokeswoman, said yesterday: "There is now complete confusion and chaos in the Government on [the issue of] abortion."