Gould exposes Labour split: Resignation may provide anti-Maastricht campaign with figurehead

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The Independent Online
LABOUR PLANS to exploit government splits over Europe and the economy were blighted by the dramatic resignation last night of Bryan Gould from the Shadow Cabinet on the eve of the party's Blackpool conference.

While some Labour leaders argued that Mr Gould's departure had been expected, given his disagreement with last week's policy statement on Europe, his sudden walk-out provoked acrimony.

Bill Jordan, leader of the engineering union, said: 'Quite frankly, his timing seems to me that he's doing himself a favour and the party a disservice.'

Larry Whitty, the party general secretary, attempted to put the best gloss on the resignation, suggesting that the Shadow Cabinet was now united.

But that overlooked the fact that while Mr Gould had joined forces with Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner earlier to vote for a referendum on Maastricht during a preliminary meeting of the national executive, two other shadow cabinet members, John Prescott and David Blunkett, defied the leadership line and abstained.

Nevertheless, John Smith, the Labour leader, used the resignation to play up Labour unity at the Government's expense, and Mr Prescott described Mr Gould's resignation as 'a cop-out'.

Mr Smith said: 'It seems to me that this episode reaffirms the rules of collective responsibility for the Opposition. They don't seem to be applying very directly in the Cabinet at this moment.'

Mr Gould announced his resignation in a powerful and emotive speech to the anti-Maastricht Labour Common Market Safeguards group, where he accused the party leadership of 'surreptitiously' abandoning the tough conditions it had laid down for ERM entry and monetary union when he was trade spokesman.

He said the British people must have a say before some of the most important powers of self- government were 'irreversibly' given up. He had tried staying silent within the Shadow Cabinet in the three years up to the last election. That had proved not 'a sounding board and position of influence' but a 'gag or strait- jacket' on real debate.

The conference will debate the economy and Europe today, and although the leadership will win overwhelming support on both issues, Mr Gould is expected to build on strong minority feeling against Maastricht and the European exchange rate mechanism.

While some shadow cabinet members attempted to play down the resignation just minutes before the announcement was delivered, Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, said confidently: 'I don't think that's on the agenda.'

Mr Smith then issued an exchange of letters in which Mr Gould warned that he was about to address a fringe meeting, where he would state his 'strongly held views on the economy and the future of Europe'.

Mr Gould, David Mellor's shadow as spokesman on National Heritage before his resignation last week, did not meet Mr Smith at the Imperial - merely handing in his resignation letter at the hotel before leaving for the meeting.

He told Mr Smith that he knew that he could not speak his mind without breaching the collective responsibility which binds all shadow cabinet members. Mr Smith replied: 'I recognise that, following the clear decision taken by the Shadow Cabinet on policy towards Europe, you could not advance a contrary view, and remain a member of it. I regret but respect your decision.'

Some of Mr Gould's supporters were dismayed by the resignation while others believed he would provide the heavyweight figurehead the anti-Maastricht backbench forces need.

Mr Gould may also lose his national executive power base today. His position, and that of Tony Benn, a key campaigner for a referendum, are under challenge from Neil Kinnock, the former party leader and Mr Brown and Tony Blair, who have entered this year's contest.

Ken Livingstone said the resignation would lead to more than 100 Labour MPs defying the leadership. 'Today's resignation breaks the logjam. It legitimises a lot more people in Parliament,' he told a fringe meeting.

Conference reports, pages 8 and 9

Andrew Marr, page 19

(Photograph omitted)