Chief Political Correspondent
A concerted effort by the Labour leadership to get Harriet Harman and the Shadow Cabinet re-elected without changes was threatening to blow up into a rancorous row last night.
Some Labour MPs said they had been urged by the whips not to vote for Ann Clwyd, one of the main challengers, and others had been told to take next week off in return for casting proxy votes for the "status quo slate" on the Shadow Cabinet. The claims also extended to pressure on possible candidates not to stand.
One MP, who was urged not to vote for Ms Clwyd, said: "I don't know why they are getting their knickers in a twist. I am going to vote for Harman, anyway. I think she will get re-elected without this pressure."
The effort to enforce the campaign for no change was threatening to backfire on Tony Blair, the Labour leader, as MPs complained of "overkill" in the arm-twisting going on behind the scenes for next week's vote.
Last night members said Mr Blair's position meant he would have to keep ministers, such as Ann Taylor, Clare Short, Tom Clarke, and Michael Meacher, whom he would rather drop.
The refusal to countenance an open challenge has baffled backbenchers who believe that candidates who could improve Labour's appeal are being lost. But frontbenchers have been left in no doubt that their jobs will be at risk if they throw their hats into the ring for a contest.
Highly-regarded frontben-chers not standing include Derek Fatchett and Dawn Primarolo. One senior backbench Labour MP confirmed that some whips were encouraging MPs to stay away in return for handing in ballot papers for proxies to cast their votes.
Labour MPs have been told in their weekly notice from the whips' office that they are on a three-line whip on the Housing Bill with votes from 4.30 pm on Monday. On Tuesday, there is a three-line whip on a debate on the welfare state until 7 pm and a three-line whip on a debate on the voluntary sector until 10 pm.
The Labour leadership and some Scottish Labour MPs dismissed the allegations. Tommy Graham, the Labour MP for Renfrew West and Inverclyde, said, "It's a wind-up." He was "paired", he said, but there was a long tradition for Scottish MPs to do this during school holidays.Reuse content