Ministers defy Tory pressure to ditch divorce Bill

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John Major was last night determined to go ahead with the divorce reform Bill, despite backbench pressure to ditch it and the threat that further changes will be forced on ministers by an alliance of Labour and the Tory right.

Last night Sir Marcus Fox, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, said Lord Mackay should put the Bill "on the back-burner." But Downing Street was adamant the Bill would go ahead, despite the Government's dependence on Labour to ensure it becomes law.

Mr Major and the Lord Chancellor were said to be undeterred by the opposition in a free vote of more than 100 Tory MPs to the removal of fault from divorce and a successful amendment forcing the Government to extend the required cooling-off period before a divorce from one year to 18 months.

While the Bill has cleared a crucial hurdle, it still faces difficulties during the committee stage. Labour is optimistic of securing the support of Tory dissidents for an amendment to create new provisions for marriage guidance, designed to prevent divorce going ahead in the first six to eight weeks of the cooling-off period. Lord Mackay is said to be cautiously "sympathetic" to amendments along these lines, provided that they are practical.

Paul Boateng, Labour's legal affairs spokesman, warned his party may withdraw support at the third reading, if "reconciliation-counselling" mechanisms are not strengthened.

But Labour itself came under attack during and after furious exchanges between Tony Blair, the Labour leader, and Mr Major. There were Tory gibes that Labour had been "opportunistic" and "sordid" in seizing on the Government's defeat on Wednesday, although Labour supports the Bill's principles.

Mr Blair taunted Mr Major with the fact that four Cabinet ministers, led by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, had voted for the 18-month amendment. He said the vote showed "the advanced state of decay the Government is in".

Mr Major declared: "If you think it is right to have a free vote on a matter of conscience, do you equally think it is right that that it should be excluded from those members of any administration who feel strongly on these matters? If you do, then I think you have a very strange view of what forms a matter of conscience."

Mr Blair was accused of posing a "severe threat to democracy" by the Liberal Democrat, Simon Hughes. "The Prime Minister and the Leader of the House have been completely and unjustly castigated both by the press and the Leader of the Labour Party for voting as they wished to," he said.

In the crucial vote on the duration of the cooling-off period, only five members of the Shadow Cabinet voted, and all for the one-year period. They were Clare Short, Donald Dewar, Harriet Harman, Derek Foster and George Robertson.

Mr Blair supported the Bill against the amendment seeking to maintain fault, but did not vote in subsequent divisions.

Several Cabinet ministers supported Mr Major in the lobbies. They included Kenneth Clarke, William Waldegrave, Sir George Young, and Virginia Bottomley.

Lord Mackay insisted the vote did not amount to a "rebellion", although those voting against his plan included the Social Security Secretary, Peter Lilley, the Health Secretary, Stephen Dorrell and the Welsh Secretary, William Hague.

Mackay defends Bill, page 15

How they voted

Conservatives who voted to extend the waiting period to 18 months included:

Hartley Booth: resigned as parliamentary private secretary after relationship with student

Michael Brown: the only openly gay Tory MP

David Faber: divorced

Sir Peter Fry: divorced after 26 years, 2 children

Roger Gale: twice divorced

Sir George Gardiner: divorced

Sir John Hannam: divorced after 26 years, 2 children

Warren Hawksley: divorced, 2 children

Michael Howard: wife divorced twice

Robert Hughes: resigned as minister after affair with constituent

Toby Jessel: divorced

Angela Knight: divorced 1 child

Michael Mates: divorced twice, first after 21 years, 5 children

Andrew Mitchell: whose father Sir David Mitchell MP is divorced from his mother

Sir Nicholas Scott: divorced after 12 years, 3 children

Richard Spring: divorced after 14 years, 2 children

Sir Malcolm Thornton: divorced

Gary Waller: admitted child with Commons secretary

Nigel Waterson: divorced

John Wilkinson: divorced after 18 years, 1 child

Tim Yeo: resigned as minister after fathering child with a Tory councillor

Labour MPs included:

Denzil Davies: divorced, 2 children