Close vote will hang on Ulster Unionists

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

Monday's vote on disclosure of earnings could be extremely close, as seven Conservative MPs declared they could vote with Labour, enough to wipe out the Tory majority of eight. This means the vote could depend on the turnout of Ulster Unionist MPs.

Although it is in theory a "free" vote, with the whips not enforcing party discipline, in effect the House will divide on party lines. All the opposition parties are in favour of the original Nolan report, including its call for full disclosure of income related to status as MPs. The "payroll" vote of 100 Government ministers and their aides will follow the Prime Minister's lead and Downing Street's statement yesterday that he "welcomes" the select committee report "and will vote for a resolution which implements it".

Donald Dewar, Labour's chief whip, said the matter was a "clear issue of principle, and the Prime Minister has lined up on the wrong side of it". He said he was "confident that all Labour MPs would make an effort to attend".

After the death on Tuesday of Derek Enright, Labour MP for Hemsworth, and including the whipless Sir Richard Body as a Conservative, the Tories' majority is now eight.

The vote will turn on two factors: the number of Tory MPs prepared to vote for a Labour amendment to the select committee's recommendations, and the turnout of the opposition parties.

Yesterday, the Tory MPs who said they were in favour of full disclosure were: John Biffen, Steven Day, Hugh Dykes, David Martin, Richard Shepherd, Sir Teddy Taylor and David Wilshire. Not all of them will necessarily vote with the opposition, but several other MPs were undecided, including David Nicholson (C, Taunton) who said he was "sympathetic to disclosure, but had not weighed up all the pros and cons".

Some Tories, such as Sir Teddy, a battle-scarred rebel from the Euro- revolt, want full disclosure but only after the next election - on the grounds that it would be unfair to change the rules for existing MPs. This means that Labour may have to table two amendments. The first would give effect to Nolan's original recommendation for full disclosure of income, in pounds 5,000 bands, by the end of this year. The second, designed to maximise Tory support, would bring it in in the next parliament.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists are hoping for full attendance. Ian Paisley's three Democratic Unionists and Independent Unionist Robert McCartney are expected to vote with Labour.

But the intentions of the nine Ulster Unionists are less clear. The leader, David Trimble, and his new whip, Martyn Smith, are in the United States. They are expected back at the weekend, and it is thought unlikely their nine members will vote with the Tories.

Tory members of the select committee which turned Lord Nolan's report into a recommended ban on advocacy launched an offensive to argue that their proposals were a "better way" of achieving Nolan's objectives.

Sir Terence Higgins (C, Worthing), said: "Frankly we have been left to pick up the pieces - they did not have enough time, and we dealt with problems that they didn't even think of."