`Caring Labour' ploy may mollify rebel MPs

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The Independent Online
Downing Street began a publicity initiative to launch its Social Exclusion Unit yesterday amid unrest from Labour backbenchers over cuts to lone-parent benefits. Fran Abrams and Ian Burrell examine the tactics Labour is using to deflect attention from the revolt.

The Prime Minister's aides say the timing is a coincidence. But privately they must be hoping MPs planning to vote against the Government over benefit cuts on Wednesday may be mollified by the high-profile launch of the unit.

Tony Blair is not the only member of the Government to hold up the unit as an example of new Labour's caring side. It was conceived in August, when Peter Mandelson, Minister without Portfolio, was running for election to the party's National Executive Committee. He was beaten by Ken Livingstone. But as Mr Blair attends the launch at a south London school today he will be confident of winning Wednesday's vote.

But the Prime Minister may have be feeling uncomfortable after MPs' declarations that they intend defying the party leaders over lone parents. Attempts by party whips to persuade them to change their minds will doubtless be continuing.

Last night, Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservatives' social security spokesman, said he believed today's launch had been timed to distract attention from problems over the lone-parent issue. "They are trying to somehow shroud next Wednesday in a sort of smokescreen."

Yesterday some predicted that 25 of the 200 who have been said to feel uncomfortable about the cuts might go into the "no" lobby. Yet more plan to abstain, though they may be hard to distinguish from those genuinely called away on other business. The rebels have been told they could be deselected, removed from Commons committees, or refused time away from the House if they do not comply. One whip even suggested his own job was on the line if he was unsuccessful.

None is prepared to talk publicly about the pressure, but The Independent has been given a number of details. Harry Barnes, Labour MP for Derbyshire North West, was threatened with losing his place on the Northern Ireland Select Committee. Whips told him to prolong a trip to the province until the vote was over. This weekend he said it was a "private matter."

Alan Simpson, the Nottingham South MP, was also told to stay away. If he did not, a trip to help South African children would be in jeopardy. He also refused to talk about the matter.

New MPs have faced even more pressure and one, Martin Salter, received an apology after complaining to Nick Brown, the Chief Whip. This weekend he would only say that Mr Brown had been "sensitive and understanding."

Yesterday four Parliamentary Private Secretaries to ministers were refusing to confirm reports that they planned to resign rather than vote with the Government. They were Alice Mahon, PPS to Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Neil Gerrard, PPS to the Treasury minister Dawn Primarolo; Jeff Ennis, PPS to the health minister Tessa Jowell, and Mick Clapham, PPS to another health minister, Alan Milburn.

Several more MPs, including some who were elected for the first time this year, spoke out publicly on the issue yesterday.

Julie Morgan, member for Cardiff North, said opponents still hoped to persuade ministers to change their minds.

"The issue is that we have fought for a Labour government for so long and I don't think anybody wants to be in the position of not supporting that government. But having said that, there is a tremendous amount of feeling amongst the backbenchers against these proposals," she said.