Feuding Tories sent home early

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Tory backbenchers were urged to take next week off by their party whips as the Government last night found itself a massive 37 points behind in the polls.

Labour's frontbenchers claimed that the announcement that there would be no three-line whips in the House of Commons next week showed ministers wanted their junior colleagues to go home and keep quiet.

"It's a sign of desperation. They are trying to close Westminster down early for Christmas," one senior Labour MP said. "They hope everyone will stay away and there will be no conspiring and fighting."

However, while some MPs will undoubtedly take advantage of the pre-Christmas break, the MPs who are keen on Europe - for and against - will undoubtedly be present on the government benches and will leave ministers in no doubt as to the strength of their feelings.

The move came as a Gallup poll -carried out for the Daily Telegraph - gave the Labour Party its biggest lead in almost a year. The poll, carried out among 1,072 voters after last week's Budget, showed the Opposition's lead increasing by 10 points to 37 points since last month.

The poll was carried out before this week's Conservative rift over Europe and before the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, was forced to deny that he was prepared to resign over the issue. Last night, there was further embarrassment as Tory MPs revolted over a pounds 50m cut in war pensions.

These divisions, which were accompanied by a backbench revolt on Wednesday over the partial handgun ban, are bound to have lessened the Government's support still further and next week is unlikely to bring any relief.

A two-day debate on Europe will bring the Euro-sceptics out in force, even without a vote, and the Dublin summit next weekend will be bound to leave the Prime Minister looking isolated among his European Union counterparts.

The Gallup poll showed that the Conservatives' support had declined by 6 points between October and November to 22 per cent, while Labour's rose by 4 points to 59 per cent. A larger poll of 9,000 voters, mainly carried out before the Budget, had given Labour a 30-point lead compared with 28.9 in October.

Six out of ten voters questioned said that the Budget was "not good for families," seven out of ten said it was "not good for ordinary people" and more than eight out of ten said it was "not good for poor people".

A Conservative Party spokeswoman said last night that the political polls had shown inconsistent results recently. "They seem to be all over the place. Some are up and some are down. We say the only poll that matters is the general election," she said.

Pensions battle, page 2