Now they're getting dirty

Guerrilla warfare in the Commons was declared by Labour and the Liberal Democrats last night after government whips were caught red-handed cheating in Monday night's crucial fisheries vote.

Having lost its overall majority, the Government faces a new year of attrition from an Opposition united in outrage. The Labour Chief Whip, Donald Dewar, said opposition parties would be "erasing the signposts" and setting up ambushes for the Government.

The first blood was drawn when Labour inflicted a defeat on the Government on the anti-stalking bill to allow courts to order offenders to be counselled after conviction. The Government was defeated by seven votes, 179 to 172.

Opposition whips said it was a sign of more defeats to come for the Government. "We didn't think they would be this incompetent," said one Labour whip. But government whips shrugged off the defeat, which could be overturned in the Lords. "If they think counselling for rapists is a vote-winner, they must be mad," said a government source.

The crisis broke over the result of the first of two fisheries votes on Monday, when an opposition attack was defeated by an 11-vote majority. In the run-up to that vote, regarded as a test of the Government's ability to win after Labour's victory in the Barnsley East by-election, whips on both sides of the House began making arrangements last Thursday to "pair" sick and absent MPs. Pairing is a tradition which allows ministers and MPs to go abroad, and MPs to remain in their sick-beds, without having to dash back to Westminster for important votes.

In the run-up to the vote, Labour had four MPs it wanted to pair; the Liberal Democrats had three. But in a double-dealing exercise that left the two opposition parties aghast when it emerged yesterday in the aftermath of the vote, the Government's pairing whip, Derek Conway, gave Labour and the Liberal Democrats four names - pairing three Tories with six opposition MPs.

The duplicity emerged early yesterday when whips combed the division lists, looking for an explanation for the Government's larger than expected majority. With the nine Ulster Unionists abstaining, the Government should have won by eight votes. If the Unionists had voted against the Government, it would have lost by one, because the dissident backbencher Sir John Gorst abstained as part of his protest against the threatened closure of a local hospital casualty unit. Anticipating the risk of defeat, Mr Conway tricked Labour and the Liberal Democrats to save the day for the Government.

Yesterday Mr Dewar and the Liberal Democrat Whip, Archie Kirkwood, demanded an explanation from Alastair Goodlad, the Tory Chief Whip. None was provided at that meeting, so the two opposition parties agreed on a spontaneous protest - withdrawing all pairing arrangements from 13 January, when the Commons returns.

But then, in briefings from the government whips' office, journalists were told the Opposition were "bad losers"; no pairing agreements had been broken; and the last time pairing arrangements were withdrawn, in 1993, the government majority went up. "It's a good omen for us, from now to May," one senior Tory whip said. The Government whips' office compounded the situation, saying it did not do deals with the Liberal Democrats - in effect calling Mr Kirkwood a liar.

When the unofficial Conservative reply was relayed to Mr Dewar, he was incandescent with anger. A Labour source said it was entirely possible that all behind-the-scenes deals between the two front benches would be broken off. The treachery began last Thursday when Labour's pairing whip, George Mudie, told Mr Conway that he needed four pairs for four Labour MPs: Martin Redmond, Don Valley; James Dunnachie, Glasgow Pollok - who are both ill - and Gareth Wardell, Gower; and Norman Godman, Greenock and Port Glasgow, who were to be away when the vote was taken.

He was initially offered Walter Sweeney, Vale of Glamorgan, who was away on the same Commons business as Mr Wardell, and Terry Dicks, Hayes and Harlington, who had gone abroad - with two more names to follow. What Mr Mudie did not know was that the next day, Friday, Mr Kirkwood was offered Mr Sweeney and Mr Dicks, and another Tory MP, Sir Keith Speed, as pairs for three of his absent MPs - Paddy Ashdown, David Alton and Sir Russell Johnston.