The Government escaped defeat by 303 to 302 on an opposition motion deploring its failure to lift the export ban on British beef. The Ulster Unionists deserted the Government, joining Labour in the vote.
Donald Dewar, Labour chief whip, pulled out all the stops in an attempt to carry an opposition motion for the first time since Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. With some ill members "nodded through", both sides managed a full mobilisation, with all absences paired, to confirm the Tory majority of one. A defeat would not have brought the Government down, but would have seriously damaged Tory morale.
All the minor parties achieved a full turnout behind Labour, including David Trimble's nine Ulster Unionist Party MPs, as well as Ian Paisley's three Democratic Unionists.
Northern Irish MPs were particularly irritated by the failure of Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture Minister, to get the ban lifted on the province's beef.
In the debate, Mr Hogg admitted there was no prospect of getting the general ban on British beef lifted for the foreseeable future.
Ulster Unionists reacted with dismay after Mr Hogg admitted that ministers had not yet tabled "detailed working papers" to try to secure a lifting of the ban for certified BSE-free herds, fed mainly on grass, in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Despite repeated questioning, the minister appeared unable to explain the delay, and later animated conversations with Unionist MPs in the Chamber evidently did not persuade them either.
This admission came after Mr Hogg told subdued Tory benches that a partial lifting of the ban in those regions was the Government's best hope: "We are not going to get from the member states an absolute guaranteed timetable leading to dates when the ban will be lifted."
He said other European Union countries were "facing very strong internal pressure from consumers and farming unions, not to agree to a rapid and substantial lifting of the ban. And therefore it seems to us probably that the best way forward is to concentrate on the specialist herds and possibly on cattle born after 1 August."
Robin Cook, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, who mocked Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, for failing to speak for the Government in the debate, challenged Mr Hogg over the Government's failure to secure a lifting of the ban by this month - as promised by the Prime Minister after the Florence summit in June.
Mr Hogg found himself interrupted repeatedly by disbelieving Tory backbenchers, whose despair sapped morale on the Tory side of the House. He was also given a rough time by Tory Euro-sceptics and potential rebels. John Townend, leader of the main right-wing grouping of Tory back- benchers, said Britain had been "double-crossed by our European partners over the lifting of the beef ban, just as we've been double-crossed over the Social Chapter. They are enjoying taking British export markets and have no intention of lifting the ban for several years."Reuse content