Anti-war MP quits 'bullying Labour'

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An anti-war Labour MP launched a scathing attack on both Tony Blair's leadership and government failures last night as he defected to the Liberal Democrats.

Paul Marsden denounced the Labour high command's "obsession with control-freakery and spin", accused the Prime Minister of being "increasingly arrogant and presidential" and complained that the party had let down the electorate on public services.

The Shrewsbury and Atcham MP turned his back on the party after a series of clashes with government whips that culminated in a late-night Commons confrontation in which he said he was physically and verbally attacked.

His departure is the first by a Labour MP to the Liberal Democrats, and although it will have no impact on the Government's overwhelming Commons majority, it will raise fresh questions over the party's handling of dissent.

It comes at a difficult time for ministers as a stand-off with the Lords deepens over anti-terrorism legislation and questions arise about the office expenses of Nigel Griffiths, a Trade minister.

Mr Marsden first clashed with Labour's Chief Whip, Hilary Armstrong, after opposing British support for American-led attacks on Afghanistan. He denounced planned anti-terrorism legislation and the whips' tactics. Finally he issued a press release detailing the alleged abuse he faced from several Labour MPs.

Mr Marsden was summoned to a meeting yesterday with Ms Armstrong to face charges of bringing the party into disrepute by attacking colleagues in public. But he failed to attend and, after weeks of secret negotiations with the Liberal Democrats, announced his decision to defect.

In a statement, he said: "I'm sick and tired of giving this Government the benefit of the doubt. Labour's let people down. Like more and more people in this country, I have lost confidence in the Labour Government. I have had enough of their obsession with control-freakery and spin instead of policies which will really improve people's lives.

"I want to belong to a party which encourages debate and practises genuine internal democracy. Tony Blair is behaving in an increasingly arrogant and presidential manner. His party believes in threats and intimidation to crush internal dissent."

He also complained public services were not improving and called for tax increases to pay for better schools, hospitals and transport.

Labour moved swiftly to portray Mr Marsden as an eccentric who had proved a liability to the party. A senior source said: "Clearly he is a maverick. Privately we are delighted."

Charles Clarke, the party chairman, blamed the MP's departure on his opposition to the war on terrorism, saying: "Before 11 September, Paul Marsden had no central difficulty with government policy, no difficulty with the whips."

But Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, whose party now has 53 MPs thanks to defections, said: "Together these new supporters from Labour and the Conservatives send a powerful signal.

"The Government is no longer trusted. The Conservatives are too extreme and the Liberal Democrats are the party of the future."

Mansell Williams, the president of Shrewsbury and Atcham Labour Party, said the MP had treated his constituents with contempt.

"He has used outrageous language and accusations to crank up the impact of his defection. We are shocked and appalled at the dishonourable manner in which he has behaved," Mr Williams said.

Later Mr Marsden hit back at suggestions by senior Labour figures that his behaviour had been unbalanced.

"There they go again – I mean I'm supposed to be having a nervous breakdown. That is the sort of politics I want to get away from. For goodness sake, it is either smearing people or spinning the news."

Mr Clarke last night appeared to walk out of a live BBC Newsnight programme moments before he due to be interviewed over the Marsden affair. Presenter Jeremy Paxman told viewers Mr Clarke had said later he had left because of the timing of the interview. The Labour Party was unavailable for comment.

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