Rebels set stage for wider divide over benefit cuts

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Labour left-wingers were predicting a new and even bigger revolt over disability benefits last night after 47 MPs voted against plans to cut lone parents' payments. Fran Abrams, Political Correspondent, asked whether this week's set-back would force a change of direction.

Leaders of the campaign against cuts in lone parents' benefits were celebrating what they believed was a victory yesterday.

They believed the threat of an even worse rebellion could prevent similar cuts to disability benefits.

Ken Livingstone, one of the leading figures in the lone-parent revolt, said that 100 MPs supported the campaign but more had expressed sadness at having to support the measure. One member had told him it was "the worst day of my life".

"People get more independent, not less, as parliaments go on," Mr Livingstone said. "It's going to be almost impossible to get through any real cuts in disability benefit. It would be too damaging."

Even the most loyal ministers conceded privately that the issue of lone mothers' benefits was badly handled And while there were no cabinet rebels, there must have been some with heavy hearts. John Prescott was in Japan, but Robin Cook was given permission not to vote despite being in the country. He was meeting the Spanish foreign minister.

There were warnings of "implacable opposition to any cuts" from a Labour MP, David Winnick, and from the Labour peer Lord Ashley of Stoke.

Lord Ashley, joint chairman of the Parliamentary All-Party Disablement Group, said the group would meet Harriet Harman, Secretary of State for Social Security, next week to say it would not back any plans to tax, means-test or time-limit disability benefits, which are believed to be under consideration.

"All the disabled people who have been in touch with me have been very, very upset about this. Their anxiety and anger can, if ignored or mishandled, make the one parent family row look tame in comparison. We shall be seeking a clear commitment from Harriet Harman - no cuts," he said.

The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, said reforms of the benefits system would continue. "What we are trying to do is reform a welfare state that is stale. The public and people in the Labour Party will understand that we are doing the right thing," he said in a radio interview.

Downing Street spokesmen added that MPs had been elected on a modernising agenda and they should expect to stick to it. They also predicted disciplinary action against the rebels.

As the scale of Tony Blair's first big rebellion had become clear, whips and party spokesmen had named four offenders who they said would face disciplinary action or even expulsion. At the very least Brian Sedgemore, John Marek, Ken Livingstone and Bob Wareing would face a loss of privileges, they said. But yesterday the rebels continued to speak out against party discipline and dismissed the expulsion rumours as "spin".

Mr Livingstone claimed that when he went into the whips' office yesterday morning to take his punishment there was none to be had. He expected to have a "chat" with the chief whip, Nick Brown, but little more. The whips had seemed "demoralised," he added. "I am very pissed off. I cleared my diary so I could be free to be disciplined," he said. He added that there was a very good reason why a decision to discipline him would create a left-wing backlash: "If I was suspended Peter Mandelson automatically takes my seat on the National Executive Committee."

Another of the four, Brian Sedgemore, said he had had a similar experience. He was picked out for writing a letter in which he described the whips as "goolie-crushers". He compounded his offence by saying on Newsnight that his whip, Bridget Prentice, had told him: "If I thought you had goolies I would crush them." Afterwards, the chief whip had merely told him: "You've been naughty."

Bob Wareing, who was said to be in particular trouble because he was recently suspended for a breach of the rules on members' interests, said he had had no contact with the whips.

"I'll let them worry about it. I'm just getting on with my job," he said.

A government source said Mr Wareing, Mr Sedgemore and Mr Marek would have their cases referred to the Parliamentary Labour Party.