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Labour is ready to ditch Unionists

Tony Blair has decided to get tough with the Ulster Unionists by offering no concessions to them on Labour's Northern Ireland policy before tonight's crucial vote of censure.

The Labour leadership has written off the hope of David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, delivering his nine MPs in a vote of no-confidence to bring down the Government before 1 May. The Labour leader is therefore prepared to call the Unionists' bluff over tonight's vote on the motion attacking Minister of Agriculture, Douglas Hogg.

Mo Mowlam, the opposition spokeswoman on Northern Ireland, signalled Labour's readiness to alienate the Ulster Unionists, if necessary, in an interview for The Independent in which she predicted that the Unionists would revive their historic formal links with the Tories after the general election.

Last night, in a BBC television interview, the Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis said Labour had made a number of mistakes on tonight's censure vote. "I think the Opposition has got its timing wrong, it's got its objectives wrong, and it has got its relationship with other parties wrong, and that is not a good sign for the future," he said.

The Labour leadership is ready to call Mr Trimble's bluff over his threats to vote against the Government in the belief that although they may join Labour tonight at the last minute, they would not do so in any subsequent confidence vote, which could force an early general election.

The Government has offered a series of concessions to secure the vital votes of the Ulster Unionists and hold on to power, including a U-turn to lift the export ban on Ulster herds; delaying the implementation of the North report with legislation to curb the Loyalist marching season; and the expected rejection of demands for a fresh inquiry into the Bloody Sunday massacres. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, is holding in reserve a further concession, to give powers to an Ulster grand committee to vet legislation through the Commons which could be offered, if the government whips fear a defeat.

Mr Blair said at the weekend he did not believe Labour would win tonight's vote, following signs by some Ulster Unionists they would abstain. Labour is prepared to test the Unionist's backbone on the beef issue, which is of crucial importance to Ulster farmers, many of whom are unionists, because the Labour leadership has now calculated that Mr Trimble will not seek to bring down the Government.

The Unionists may also have calculated that their best chance lies in propping up the Government until May to limit the chances of an overall Labour majority, in order to give the Unionists more leverage in a hung parliament. Ms Mowlam is holding to the Government's line on the peace process, but she believes that a right-wing Tory Party, with Unionist support, will withdraw support for the bipartisan approach to Ulster pursued by John Major. "I am not convinced that bipartisanship will hold because I think we will see a very different Tory Party after the election," she said.

Ms Mowlam, who held private talks with Mr Trimble last week, said she would not soften the criteria for allowing Sinn Fein into the peace talks, but she is sticking by her support for the North report, and she said she was prepared to "look again" at the Bloody Sunday killings.

In spite of weekend reports that two left-wing MPs had been demoted from Labour's backbench committee on Northern Ireland, the Labour leadership believes that the Unionists are at a crossroads and will turn back to the Tories in the next Parliament.

The rival Democratic Unionist Party, led by The Rev Ian Paisley, is contemptuous of Mr Trimble's position. "Trimble is a leader without a party. There are at least three of his MPs who won't vote against the Government and others who are waiting for him to trip up so they can take over as leader," said one DUP source.