Politics: Shy benefits rebels make way for `Tone's clones'

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The Independent Online
A predicted Commons rebellion over cuts in lone parents' benefits failed to materialise last night as unhappy backbenchers stayed away. Fran Abrams, Political Correspondent, watched as loyal Labour MPs queued up to support the Government line.

Labour rebels stayed away in droves from yesterday's debate on benefits and welfare reform. Instead, the benches were packed with eager, newly- elected MPs anxious to win Brownie points from party whips.

Earlier in the day, Downing Street had ruled out suggestions that it might delay the implementation of the cuts, clearly relishing the opportunity to display strength in the face of left-wing protests.

There could still be a rebellion when the Government's measures are put to the vote next Wednesday. But last night's Conservative motion attacking ministers for implementing the previous government's cuts won no support from Labour.

At times, the lack of opposition on the Labour side was almost comical. "Tone's clones" rose one after another to support the Government until the shadow social security spokesman, Iain Duncan Smith, accused the whips of having orchestrated their efforts.

There were even claims that Ken Livingstone, a vocal opponent of the changes, had phoned to say he would have been present but had twisted his ankle on the Tube, though these could not be confirmed. Others simply went missing without explanation.

Among the new Labour recruits who packed the chamber to back the beleaguered Secretary of State for Social Security, Harriet Harman, was Caroline Flint, MP for Don Valley.

"I am very proud that new Labour is beginning to prioritise work over welfare, opportunity over waste. This government will face up to the growing numbers of women who need and want to work," she said.

A stream of others were anxious to intervene during Mr Duncan Smith's speech, each apparently armed by the whips with a piece of information on his earlier pronouncements on welfare or on the Conservative government's record.

Mr Duncan Smith accused Helen Brinton, the ultra-loyal MP for Peterborough, of having been given an "intervention list" by the whips.

When in opposition, Labour front benchers had gone around the country making wild promises, including pledges to reverse lone parent benefit cuts, and they should now be held to account, he argued.

"It wasn't so much a case of a wet Wednesday in Dudley as a UK-wide programme of empty promises seven days a week. No wonder the backbenchers have smelt a rat," he said.

The only dissent on the government side came from the left-winger, Dennis Skinner.

"Some lone parents don't want to work. They want to look after their children and therefore should not be penalised because they take that honourable stance," he said.

Ms Harman announced a conference to be held next month on a national childcare strategy - a measure which appeared to have been hastily arranged, as no date or venue had been fixed for the event.

"Too many lone mothers have been written off to a life of dependency on income support. Lone mothers want to work for the same reason as married women work - for a better standard of living for their children," she said.

The only opposition came from the Liberal Democrats. Their spokesman, David Rendel, said the Government could afford to reverse the cuts.

The Government won the vote by 336 to 131.