Tory rebels start healing process with loyal vote

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The Independent Online
The first sign that the Tories may be beginning to reunite in the face of the threat from a Labour Party led by Tony Blair came last night as a majority of its rebels voted with the Government.

Five of the nine MPs disciplined for failing to back the European Finance Bill voted with their party after the Government extended an unmistakeable olive branch in an effort to end the division which has deprived the Government of its majority.

Tony Newton, leader of the Commons, said, before a vote in which the Government comfortably preserved by 325 to 388 its narrow majority on key standing committees, that "all of us wish to see this situation resolved as speedily as possible." While the Government had been assured of victory because of the Ulster unionists' support, the vote was regarded as a key test of the rebels' willingness to return to the fold.

The five rebels who voted with the Government were Sir Teddy Taylor, Richard Body, Nicholas Budgen, Richard Shepherd and John Wilkinson. Michael Cartiss, Teresa Gorman, Christopher Gill and Tony Marlow abstained in at least one of the two crucial votes.

The move came after Mr Blair had delivered his angriest attack yet on opponents of his plans to rewrite Clause IV of the party constitution. At a private meeting in Brussels, he accused Labour MEPs who had attacked the idea in an embarrassingly timed Guardian advertisement of "gross discourtesy" and "infantile incompetence'' in blunting the party's new-year offensive.

Mr Blair spelled out his concern to the MEPs amid increasing talk among some senior Labour figures about the possibility that the party's national executive will seek to by-pass activist opponents of a new Clause IV by advising constituency parties to hold individual membership ballots before the special conference on 29 April. Under this tentative proposal, ballots would not be compulsory but the executive would encourage individual polls.

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