Further challenge to rail sale

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The Independent Online
THE Government's rail privatisation programme may be brought to a complete halt in the new year by a Tory backbench revolt and a renewed onslaught by the Opposition.

Shadow transport secretary Clare Short yesterday announced that Labour would force the issue to a vote. "We will have a debate which gives every Tory MP the chance to show what they really think of privatisation," she said. "The country doesn't want it, a lot of Tory MPs don't want it, and we will give them a chance to stand up and be counted."

Three Tory backbenchers publicly signalled their discontent over the botched sell-off of rail franchises, but Michael Heseltine, the deputy Prime Minister, made clear the Government's intention to press ahead.

However, in the wake of Friday's Appeal Court ruling that Roger Salmon, the Government-appointed franchise director, had acted unlawfully in setting train services "too low" after privatisation, there is growing unease in Conservative ranks.

Robert Hicks, MP for Cornwall South East, said fears over privatisation were now shared by "a significant number" of Tory MPs: "We are coming very close to having to make a decision as to whether we proceed at this stage. It was a privatisation too far."

David Nicholson, MP for Taunton, said he was not prepared to go into a general election with uncertainty still hanging over the railways: "I support them for the time being in making a success of railway privatisation, but there will come a time if that success is not apparent when I shall say - and I shall support this with my vote - in that case let's kill the whole thing off."

Veteran backbencher Tim Rathbone, MP for Lewes, also welcomed the Appeal Court ruling. Conservative rail-sceptics will have an opportunity to do something about it in February when Labour puts down a Commons motion. With a tiny majority, the Government could be forced into a climbdown.

Technically, John Major could ignore defeat on an Opposition motion, but politically it would be difficult not to restore the level of train services to pre-privatisation levels, making a nonsense of the whole sell-off.

Mr Heseltine refused to countenance any change of direction. "All these things are controversial," he said. "The Tories had the guts to do it. What is the summation of it? We are now receiving pounds 50m a week in taxes on the profits of the companies, compared with the same pounds 50m a week that the taxpayer was paying in subsidies."