The Week In Westminster: Narks and toadies who will gain from welfare revolt

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The Independent Online
THE DEPARTMENT of Social Security looks like becoming the political graveyard for ministers of this Government, in much the same way that the Home Office sounded the death knell for successive Tory ministers. Social Security has already killed off the Ministerial careers of Harriet Harman and Frank Field and now threatens Alistair Darling, following the backbench revolt on incapacity benefit. Mr Darling opted for the ministerial bunker and battened down the hatches, refusing to give any concessions.

He was encouraged by over-zealous Government whips, whose threats and blackmail only hardened the rebels' determination. Alice Mahon (Lab, Halifax) complained that whips were hinting at broken careers and de-selection. New boy rebel Dr Ian Gibson (Lab, Norwich North) confirmed that whips would refuse his requests to get back to his constituency on Commons sitting days.

But although the Government won the vote, it will lose in the Lords. Concessions will have to be made when the Bill returns to the Commons, since many of those who abstained are threatening to vote against the Government next time. Malcolm Wicks (Lab, Croydon North) was typical of several Labour MPs in letting it be known that he will now oppose the measure if no changes are made in the Lords

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BACKBENCHER OF the week was Roger Berry, who tabled the amendment to the Welfare Reform Bill. Mr Berry's credentials in support of disabled rights are impeccable. His tone was of sorrow rather than anger.

Speech of the week belonged to Audrey Wise (Lab, Preston), whose long memory stiffened the resolve of waverers. Ms Wise reminded MPs that in 1976 the Callaghan Government tried to renege on Labour's pledge to introduce child benefits. Only the threat of a backbench revolt forced this measure through. "Talk about pressure - we were a very tight House then and we were told that if we persisted he [Callaghan] would resign and there would be a General Election three weeks hence ... We stuck and child benefit was introduced," she said.

But rebellions provide opportunities for whips' narks to gain promotion. Watch out for new boys Tom Levitt (Lab, High Peak) and Chris Pond (Lab, Gravesham) who impaled themselves on the barbed wire of loyalty with stomach- churning speeches in support of the Government. Former Tory whip, Tristan (now Lord) Garel-Jones used to remind backbench MPs that the quickest way to a ministerial limo was to speak in favour of squalid and unpopular Government measures.

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THE TORY deputy leader Peter Lilley has been making determined efforts to save his political skin by keeping his head down. Unlike Gillian Shepherd, Sir Norman Fowler and Michael Howard, Mr Lilley is desperate to stay in the Shadow Cabinet. Last week he pulled out of an engagement where he was due to speak on "Compassionate Conservatism", pleading that he was due to speak in the Commons. Instead, he sent Gary Streeter.

But there was no Lilley speech in the Chamber. In fact, Mr Lilley has made no speech in Parliament since becoming deputy leader last summer.

Later in the week Mr Lilley trooped along to supper with the No Turning Back Group of Thatcherite MPs, to try to restore his flagging reputation as an original Thatcherite. He pinned the blame for his recent debacle on the media and the Tory party spin machine. Most Tory MPs want him to go, but believe that he will nevertheless survive.

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DAVID DAVIS (Con, Haltemprice & Howden), Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, has finally succeeded in bringing to the floor of the Commons the Government's motion to grant every MP an annual free trip to any EU capital - no questions asked.

Mr Davis intends to amend the motion to require MPs to set out the reasons for the visits, the duration, and who they will be visiting. Eric Forth (Con, Bromley & Chislehurst) is considering proposing an amendment to delete "EU capital" and insert "Commonwealth capital".

The Government, fearing trouble, has craftily put the motion immediately ahead of a resolution to increase public funding of Tory front bench research facilities, as a way of blackmailing the Opposition. But Mr Davis promises the Government a rough ride.

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THE TORY Party's attempts to forget the past will be undermined next week when two former MPs launch their diaries and memoirs.

Ex-Government whip Gyles Brandreth has incurred the enmity of the Tory chief whip, James Arbuthnot, for breaking the convention of never revealing the secrets of the whips' office. His diaries, Breaking the Code, detail the dying days of the Major regime.

Mr Brandreth reveals that there is an emergency panic button secreted in the panelling of the table in the Commons chamber, which the Government whip can press to summon the chief whip if there is sudden uproar.

At the weekly meeting at 12 Downing Street, Tory whips used to consider the fate of MPs who appeared on lists marked "troubled", "unstable" or "sick". Dr Liam Fox (a GP) was the resident whips' doctor, but found himself upbraided for his incorrect assessment of former MP Sir George Gardiner.

"I thought you said he was going to be dead by Christmas. He's never looked fitter," complained fellow whips.

But Sir George gets the last laugh in his own memoirs, which set out in gory detail his loathing of John Major. Vitriol and bile drip from Sir George's pen, and its title, A Bastard's Tale, gives a hint of the flavour of the book.

Sir George reveals that long before John Major's "put up or shut up" leadership election in 1995, he had played the kingmaker by putting in place an embryo campaign team for Michael Portillo and "a wired-up campaign HQ waiting to be mobilised".

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