Ministers would face severe difficulties pushing the changes through as part of the flagship Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill because many backbenchers who abstained on Thursday are determined to vote against the Government when it comes back from the Lords. Although the Government would always be likely to win a vote to reverse any amendment, it would be a huge embarrassment to Tony Blair if the Government's majority was reduced any further.
Altogether 39 backbenchers failed to vote on the amendment, of whom around 15 abstained in the Commons. Many others, as one backbencher put it, "suffered from diplomatic illness" and stayed away in their constituencies.
Peers are set to defeat the contentious plans to means-test Invalidity Benefit when they vote for amendments to be put forward by Lord Ashley of Stoke, the disabled rights campaigner and Labour peer.
David Hinchliffe, (Wakefield), a rebel and chairman of the Health Select Committee, said it was "inconceivable" that the Government would press ahead with the legislation without serious concessions. "They have realised that they cannot ignore the serious concern by so many backbenchers over this measure," he said. "To press ahead would make their position very difficult and they might find themselves with an even bigger rebellion when the Bill comes back to the Commons."
Gwyneth Dunwoody, (Crewe and Nantwich), one of the rebels and chairman of the Transport Select Committee, said many MPs who abstained were still opposed to the cuts in principle. "I was quite surprised that some of them did not vote because I am aware on how principled their opposition to theses changes is," she said.
Another MP said new backbenchers from the 1997 intake, who were frightened to vote against the Government, were likely to be heartened by peers' revolts. "These are the hazards of the macho-style of this Government. The Whips office was not in control of tactics and that is why they cannot fight off a rebellion like they used to," the MP said.
Dr Roger Berry, (Kings-wood) the rebels' leader and secretary of the All-Party Group on Disabilities, said it was a "racing certainty" that the Government would be defeated in the Lords.
But Tony Blair defended the Government's policy on disability benefits during a visit to Darlington, insisting that the Government was delivering its wider objectives of reform. "There are benefits here," he said. "But there are tough decisions too. We are not cutting help for the disabled. On the contrary we are going to spend more on the disabled.
"But we are directing the help to those that need it most, the severely disabled and we are reforming the benefits system for the future so that abuses in it are eliminated. It is long overdue that we reform our welfare system and what ever the difficulties we shall see it through: to give work to those who can work, security to those that can't and give benefit money to those most in need."Reuse content