Tories hang on for May after vote ambush

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The Government was given a bloody nose by Labour last night with an embarrassing one-vote defeat in the Commons on its flagship Education Bill as John Major attempted to galvanise the Tory ranks to cling on for a general election on 1 May.

Within hours of the Cabinet agreeing at Chequers that patriotic optimism and a tax auction with Labour were to be the twin planks of the Conservative election strategy, Labour hit back with an ambush in the Commons to stop grant-maintained schools being allowed to expand their premises by 50 per cent. Tony Blair accused the Government last night of "clinging on but doing nothing".

The defeat will be debilitating for the Tories, but will not bring about a confidence vote which could bring down the Government. And with John Major making it absolutely clear that he would go to the election limit of 1 May, barring a defeat on a vote of confidence, the safety-first campaign theme was one of continuing to offer opportunity and choice for the "hard- working" classes.

Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, was furious at the defeat, accusing the Labour leadership of "totally disgusting hypocrisy" after the vote was sprung by Labour on the Government as Tory MPs went off for an early dinner. She made clear she would seek to overturn the defeat in the Lords.

But Labour's Education spokesman, David Blunkett, last night offered Mrs Shephard a deal, to allow the Bill through, if she was prepared to drop other contentious proposals to expand selection in schools and extend the assisted places scheme in primary schools.

John Prescott, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, said: "The Government is in complete disarray. The Prime Minister talks about delaying until May, yet it is clear that the grip on power is slipping. We will continue to pile on the pressure on the Government because the country needs and deserve a general election as soon as possible."

It was the second time the Government had been defeated on the same proposal. In the first defeat at the Bill's committee stage, two Tory MPs were absent, one on a photocall with Norma Major, and a whip who was looking for the absentee. Last night when Mrs Shephard tried to reverse that defeat, Labour defeated the Government again, this time on the floor of the Commons by 273 votes to 272 - a Labour majority of one.

Five Cabinet ministers failed to vote in the division: the Home Secretary, Michael Howard; the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind; the President of the Board of Trade, Ian Lang; the Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew; and the National Heritage Secretary, Virginia Bottomley.

All were with the Prime Minister at Chequers for talks on the general election manifesto. After the all-day meeting, Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, pledged that a new Conservative government would cut the tax burden, which it has not achieved in any of the last four parliaments.

Giving a press conference at the Barnard Arms, a pub near Chequers, Mr Dorrell said that the Cabinet had worked through its ideas on health, education, social security and the economy, "to ensure that Britain continues to be the best country in the world in which to live".

Asked whether Britain was the best country in the world for the poor and the unemployed, Mr Dorrell replied: "If you are unemployed in Britain you have a better chance of finding a job than if you are unemployed in any other major country in Europe.

"So the proposition that this is a good place to live because it gives you a better prospect for a job and a better prospect for increasing your own, and your family's, living standards is one that I think stands up."

Giving a broad sweep of the policies that would be offered under plans to develop ownership, choice and opportunity, Mr Dorrell said there would be a grammar school in every town, expanded choice in the National Health Service and more privatisation.

A more negative message was delivered by William Hague, the Secretary of State for Wales, who said on BBC radio that the Conservatives had beaten the British disease of strikes and inflation during the 1980s and would now offer "fresh reforming ideas to meet the big economic challenges of the 1990s".

He added that having created a strong economy, it was "important not to throw that away and that's what's at stake in the coming election".

Earlier, as the long-drawn election campaign continued, Labour threatened to force the writ for the Wirral South by-election, so that it could be held on 27 February.

The Tories immediately replied, saying they would fulfil a promise to move the writ themselves within next week, so that the by-election would be called either for 27 February or 6 March.

Given the disastrous result for the Tories which is expected in that pre-election poll, the delay in a general election until May is probably based on the hope that the Wirral South debacle will, by then, have been long forgotten.