Dewar dampens Labour hopes

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

Donald Dewar, Labour's chief whip, yesterday tried to dampen expectations of a Commons defeat for the Government over a pounds 900m windfall from the self-employed, in votes on the Finance Bill in coming weeks.

Andrew Smith, Labour Treasury spokesman, on Monday highlighted the "hidden tax bombshell" in the Budget, which would put an extra tax charge on self- employed people, leaving many small-business owners facing much larger bills.

Labour hopes that the measure will offend small business supporters on the Conservative backbenches, but tried to play down the prospects of enticing Tories into the Opposition lobbies.

Mr Dewar, who was appointed in October by the Labour leader, Tony Blair, to oversee the possible transition to government, plans to set several further traps for the Government in forthcoming parliamentary business.

In addition to the tax rise for the self-employed, the Finance Bill to be published tomorrow is likely to contain measures to enact the recommendations of the Greenbury committee on directors' pay and perks. Several Tory MPs have been unhappy at the Government's handling of the issue. Further votes on rail privatisation and European fisheries policy could also pose risks for John Major.

Mr Dewar promised to give the Government a "very lively time" as its majority dwindles. "But it still has an overall majority," he added. "A Conservative MP with a 10,000 majority has every incentive to keep the Government going because otherwise he joins the unemployment queue ... But we're going to give them a very lively time in the Commons."

Emma Nicholson's defection to the Liberal Democrats has cut the majority to three, expected to fall to one after by-elections. But if the indepen- dent Tory Sir Richard Body supports the Government its majority will remain at three.

Labour tried to turn attention to the "campaign in the country", as John Prescott, the deputy leader, set off to launch an offensive in the Staffordshire South East by-election.

The by-election, caused by the death of former Tory whip Sir David Lightbown, provides Labour - in second place at the last election - with a highly winnable seat. The majority is much smaller than that in mid-Staffordshire, which Labour won in the last parliament, and is comparable to that in Dudley West, won easily in 1994.