No place for the Beast in Blair's jungle

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The Independent Online
THE BEAST OF BOLSOVER has finally been caged: 20 years after he first joined Labour's National Executive Committee, Dennis Skinner was removed yesterday amid furious left-wing claims he was the victim of a Blairite "stitch-up".

Allies claimed Mr Skinner narrowly failed to retain his NEC seat as career- conscious Labour MPs who had promised to vote for him "chickened out" after they were issued with numbered papers for the supposedly secret ballot. Mr Skinner had been made to seek re-election by Labour MPs and MEPs after a rule change forced through by Mr Blair barred MPs from representing the constituency parties - whose darling he has been since joining Labour's ruling body in 1978.

"It's an outrage," said Ken Livingstone, the MP for Brent East. "This cost him a crucial 30 votes. I saw some MPs wander off to think about it again when they were handed numbered forms." Mr Livingstone blamed it on the "Jihad Tendency" at Labour's Millbank headquarters who wanted "an endless holy war". But a Labour spokesman insisted the ballot had been secret as the numbers had been removed from the papers after the votes were cast, and no record had been kept.

Mr Skinner won the support of 182 MPs, including the cabinet ministers John Prescott, David Blunkett and Clare Short. But he could not match the three winners - Clive Soley, chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party (259), Pauline Green, Socialist group leader in the European Parliament (247) and MP Anne Begg (207).

The Beast was not growling too loudly last night. "There are now only six meetings a year, and the NEC is not the same as it was. I still have a big platform; I am booked to speak to 28 constituency parties in the next few months." He did not rule out attempting a comeback to the NEC next year.

Mr Skinner once boycotted the Queen's Speech with another left-wing firebrand - Neil Kinnock. But when Mr Kinnock was Labour leader, he called his policy review "the biggest sell-out of the century."

In 1972, he was threatened with suspension after branding Willie Whitelaw a "liar", but withdrew his charge. He was twice suspended in 1984 for suggesting Margaret Thatcher might bribe judges and for calling David Owen a "sod". He was branded The Beast of Bolsover, the Derbyshire mining seat he's held since 1970, by Andrew Faulds, a fellow Labour MP, after accusing him of being a pro-Arab lobbyist. But, now 66, he has mellowed a bit.