Members tuck in to their midnight feast

MPs defy Major and Blair to vote for pounds 10,000 pay rise
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The Independent Online
The House of Commons last night went all out for the full pounds 43,000 salary offered to MPs by last week's Senior Salaries Review Body report.

Overwhelmingly rejecting the 3 per cent pay restraint urged on ministers and MPs by all three main party leaders, the House voted for the full deal offered by the review body, topped off with a pounds 9,000 annual pay rise to be backdated to the start of this month.

In the first defeat of the night, shortly after 11pm, the Government lost its plea for restraint by a majority of 149.

That collapse rolled through a series of Government motions like a line of dominoes, prompting one Labour leadership source to lash out at the Prime Minister's failure to carry the call for restraint, saying: "This was either a sham, or a failure."

By the end of the voting, the Government stance had been left in tatters, with MPs creating a midnight feast of goodies - including the immediate payment of the pounds 43,000 and Cabinet salaries topping pounds 100,000 after the next election.

But MPs drew the line at a complete blow-out, accepting the review body recommendation that their high-level 74.1p mileage rate should be reduced to 47.2p a mile.

In the immediate aftermath of the early votes, there was criticism that an estimated 29 members of John Major's Government, including seven members of the Cabinet, had not even bothered to turn up and show solidarity with frontbench colleagues. They included the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, and the Secretary of State for Social Security, Peter Lilley.

Government whips gave as good as they got on that score, saying that Labour leader Tony Blair, shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown, and Donald Dewar, the Labour Chief Whip, were deserted in the division lobby by a "dirty dozen" of their shadow Cabinet colleagues.

While ministers abstained, however, Labour's top 12 voted against restraint - and for the full increase of pounds 43,000. They included shadow Home Secretary Jack Straw, Social Security spokesman, Chris Smith, Education spokesman, David Blunkett, former deputy leader, Margaret Beckett, and Ann Taylor, the shadow Leader of the House.

On the Tory side of the House the debacle was led by the knights of the shires, the backbench elders including Sir Marcus Fox, chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Edward Heath, former prime minister and 80-year-old Father of the House, and Sir Tim Sainsbury, the richest man in the Commons.

At the start of the debate, Commons' Leader, Tony Newton, proposed an increase of little more than pounds 1,000 on the existing salary of pounds 34,085, telling MPs that public sector pay restraint had paid economic dividends over recent years.

"It is one of the policies which has contributed to restraint in other sectors and this, in turn, to low inflation, to lower interest rates, to falling unemployment and faster growth.

"The question that the House has to answer, like the Government, is whether it can ask restraint of others without exercising restraint itself."

But that is precisely what the House did do in a vote called just before 11pm. Asked for an "expression of opinion" on the principle of a 3 per cent rise, the House took 15 minutes to reject it by 317 votes to 168, a majority of 149, with more than 160 ministers and MPs abstaining or absenting themselves from the House.

That should have left the House with a straight choice between a three- year staged move to the pounds 43,000 offered by the review body, or to award the rise instantly.

The phase-in domino fell by the way, and the House went full tilt for the pounds 43,000 - without even taking a vote on it.

Nevertheless, moving his amendment for the phase-in, Labour MP Dale Campbell-Savours said: "We're being portrayed as a bunch of Dickensian money-grabbers.

"And I think that the very credibility of Parliament is at stake if we regularly hold this kind of debate."

But Ms Taylor then gave a taste of things to come when she publicly repudiated Mr Blair's call for restraint. She said that the House should vote for the recommendations of the review body, spurning suggestions that MPs should "cherry pick".

The support for that proposition contrasted with the barracking received by Labour MP Chris Mullin who said that the existing salary of pounds 34,085 was better than the pay of the overwhelming majority of their constituents. It was "a good salary, even in the most prosperous areas".

Blair isolated, page 2