Suspended MEPs are reinstated

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Four suspended Labour MEPs were reinstated last night after the party leadership backed away from confrontation over an internal gagging order. Katherine Butler, in Brussels, suspects the truce may not last.

It was a case of Old Labour and New Labour desperately papering over the cracks last night as the party's 62 MEPs agreed a "memorandum of understanding" clarifying the meaning of a code of practice which led to disciplinary action against four rebels.

The four - Ken Coates, Hugh Kerr, Michael Hindley and Alex Falconer - all facing suspensions of up to a year, emerged from a tense two-hour meeting of the European Parliamentary Labour Party claiming "common sense had broken out". Wayne David, the party's European leader, also emerged to declare his "extreme" pleasure at the decision to bury the hatchet.

Mr David said all sides were now agreed on the meaning of the code which started the row. It bans open criticism of government policy, but also contains a specific obligation on MEPs to support proportional representation and the party selection procedures which could see many sitting members de-selected before the next European elections in 1999.

The code was never intended as a gagging order and its provisions had been misinterpreted, Mr David said. MEPs were entitled to the freedom to state their views but had to accept "certain obligations". It was now "abundantly clear" he said that the rebels could speak openly about the merits of different electoral systems but would have to accept that "full discussion will take place within the Labour Party as to how Labour candidates should be selected by the party".

But there were clear signs that hostilities could break out again. Outside the meeting room the interpretation placed on the outcome by the "Strasbourg Four" was sounding different from that outlined by Mr David. "We feel tonight is a victory for free speech" said Mr Coates, MEP for Nottingham North and Chesterfield. "I am very happy that the gag has gone. We are free to speak out on proportional representation and I shall do exactly that."