Labour hijacks business in the Commons: Tory backbench debate sabotaged by 'trench warfare' as Opposition protests over use of guillotine

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LABOUR yesterday took the gloves off and scored the first victory of its war of attrition against the Government when it hijacked the business in the House of Commons.

Three ministers were hurriedly produced by the Government, as a small squad of Labour backbench MPs seized the initiative and effectively took control of the chamber.

A handful of Labour MPs, led by Dennis Skinner, the left-wing MP for Bolsover, used a procedural device to halt a Tory backbench debate on government support for business, which would normally have dominated the day. Donald Thompson, a former Tory whip, whose debate was sabotaged, said: 'It's trench warfare and I was blown up by a hand grenade.'

The disruption threatens to go on all next week, following Labour's decision to withdraw all relations with the Government in protest at its use of the guillotine next week to force through two Bills, including national insurance increases in the Budget, within 24 hours.

Labour MPs used a procedural device, shouting 'I spy strangers', to force a division after only 40 minutes of the start of business. With only 20 MPs taking part in the vote, the Government failed to secure a quorum, allowing a debate on the Budget by the Labour left-winger Ken Livingstone to start.

Stephen Dorrell, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, was summoned by the Government whips from the Treasury to reply to Mr Livingstone. But Labour again tried to catch the Government on the wrong foot by quickly moving on to a government procedural motion on the social security Bills which are at the centre of the row. The Bills are not due to be debated until next Wednesday and Thursday, but it allowed Donald Dewar, the Labour spokesman on social security, to get his retaliation in first.

It also forced the Government to bring to the House Nick Scott, the Minister of State for Social Security, to hear Mr Dewar's attack. With Tony Newton, the Leader of the House, also sitting on the government front bench in a nearly- empty chamber, Mr Dewar condemned the Government's 'monstrous' behaviour.

'I think it is monstrous that we should be asked to approve this motion today and to push the Bills through to bulldoze them through all their stages in two days. I find it an abuse of process and offensive that we are being put in this situation,' he said.

'Your reputation as a reasonable man has been rather damaged in the past few days,' Mr Dewar told Mr Newton, who had earlier dismissed Labour's attack as 'silly'.

Government whips are hoping that Labour's guerrilla warfare in the Commons will burn itself out by the end of next week, when the House is due to rise for the Christmas recess. They pointed out that Labour's tactic of refusing to 'pair' or be ticked off from voting with Tory MPs will be irrelevant because the Government is enforcing a three-line whip all week.

However, Labour leaders believe the action, the first of its kind in more than 14 years, has put new fight into their backbenchers and are planning to continue it into the new year.