Rage, resignations and rebellion: New Labour is heartbroken

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The Independent Online
Tears, rage, rebellion and a ministerial resignation last night greeted Tony Blair's decision to drive his own MPs into the Commons lobbies with Tories like Michael Howard and John Redwood to cut the benefits of lone parents. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, reports on the agony underlying last night's 350-vote government majority.

Taunts by William Hague, the protest resignation of a Scottish Office minister, and a defiant revolt by some ministerial aides and backbench MPs could not eclipse the heart-breaking anguish of many Labour MPs as they backed the Government in the Commons.

One long-standing Labour backbencher, who was intending to vote for the Government, told The Independent: "I am very angry in myself with what I am doing tonight ... it makes me weep." He then stopped dead and went silent on the telephone. He was crying.

Asked why he had broken down, he said: "Because I am wrong." In that case, why was he planning to back the Government? "Because I have spent the last 17 years trying to get rid of the Conservatives. I can't bring myself not to vote for them ..." He broke down again, and put the phone down. He was far from an isolated case in his sorrow.

The Government was guaranteed its overwhelming majority by Tory support for the cut in benefits for new lone-parent claimants from next April, by between pounds 4.95 to pounds 10.25 a week, compared with current claimants. In the event, the Government won by 457 votes to 107, a majority of 350, with Mr Blair and his colleagues voting in the same lobby as Mr Hague and the Conservatives.

There were thought to be about 48 Labour MPs who defied a three-line whip to vote against their own government, in alliance with Paddy Ashdown and the Liberal Democrats. They will each receive an individual "yellow card" warning from the whips, with suspension or expulsion from the parliamentary party in the event of another offence against party discipline. It was calculated that as many as 60 Labour MPs were absent from the vote.

But if the scale of victory was predictable, the bitterness and recrimination of the event left the spirit of new Labour badly scarred by the clash between ideals and practice; the first big test of government will. The Blair honeymoon had ended in tears.

Alice Mahon, a ministerial aide to Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, told a press conference: "Never in a million years, when I was fighting the May election, did I believe that a Labour government, the first Labour government for 18 years, would actually take this punitive approach ..."

Afterwards, she explained why she was planning to vote against the Government. "As a human being," she said. "I have absolutely no choice. I am 60 years old, I've spent 40-odd years in the Labour Party, and never, never did I think I would be asked to take money away from the poorest people in the country." Asked how she felt, she added "It's almost like a bereavement". Mrs Mahon was later sacked as Mr Smith's aide.

The Scottish Office minister who resigned before voting against the Government was Malcolm Chisholm. Another ministerial aide, Michael Clapham, was sacked for abstaining in an early vote, and Gordon Prentice, aide to transport secretary Gavin Strang, anticipated the axe and resigned.

Mr Prentice said in the debate that the vote was a defining moment. "The whole thing - and this grieves me because I want to see this Labour government succeed - has been turned into the most insane loyalty test, where my colleagues are being invited to support the Government when they know in their hearts that what the Government is doing is wrong."

But while many MPs were distressed, others were enraged. One new woman MP who was voting for the Government said: "I am furious; I am so angry about it because it has been so badly managed. I am a loyalist; I don't believe I was elected on a platform of dissent. At the same time, however, I feel that it is wrong to remove benefit before there is anything in its place. That is a management question, and exactly the wrong thing to get macho over, as they have done. I'm angry because it is unnecessary."

But in Commons questions earlier, the Prime Minister stood his ground against an onslaught from the Conservative leader. Mr Hague said Labour MPs would be "dragged through the lobbies to vote for a measure they called shameful, malign and completely wrong. It is another example of government without principles or values."

The Tory leader, whose own party was voting with the Government, in support of a measure that was first proposed by the Conservative government, asked Mr Blair: "Isn't it the case of us having the courage of our convictions, one resigned minister having the courage of his convictions and the Labour Party in general having neither courage nor conviction?"

Mr Blair told the House: "There are different priorities, but we believe the most important thing is to help those lone parents off benefits and into work and do so in a way that doesn't lose control of public finances."