Labour's image as a women-friendly party faces a severe setback this week when one of its leading "Blair babes" is expected to announce she is to quit the House of Commons.
Tess Kingham, the 37-year-old MP for Gloucester, will tell her local constituency party of her decision on Friday before going public, The Independent has learnt. She is coming under severe pressure from senior women MPs not to resign at the next election.
Ms Kingham, who has three children under five including twins born in January, has told friends that she finds it increasingly difficult to cope with the demands of being an MP and a mother of young children. She is furious with the late hours of the Commons and claims the antiquated procedures make balancing home and work pressures its "almost impossible".
The MP expressed her frustration yesterday that no real progress had been made on working hours or facilities for women since Labour came to office in 1997. "I think the whole place needs shaking up. A lot of it is futile. At the drop of a hat, you can be stuck there until 3am. It is schoolboy politics," she said.
Ms Kingham's expected decision is likely to be used by proponents of reform as an example of the obstacles that still face MPs who are young mothers. Such a move would represent a significant embarrassment for the Government, as Labour swept to power with a record number of women MPs.
The 101 "Blair babes" vowed to change the culture of Westminster but quickly ran up against centuries-old traditions and ingrained opinions among male backbenchers in all the main parties. There is no crÃ¿che at the Commons and MPs can be called at short notice to take part in votes late at night and into the early hours of the morning.
The problem was highlighted earlier this year when the Labour MP Julia Drown was told by Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, that she could not breastfeed her child in the chamber or in any parliamentary committees.
Margaret Beckett, who chairs the Commons Modernisation Committee, last month announced a review of the present working practices of the House.
Her decision came after scores of Labour MPs complained that tactics by Tory backbenchers had resulted in a high number of votes taken after midnight since the beginning of the year.
However, some MPs are attempting to block the moves for change on the basis that all oppositions need to be given the freedom to engage in "guerrilla warfare" to keep MPs up late.
Ms Kingham will tell her local party of her decision this week so that it can proceed with the selection of a new candidate for the general election. She will issue a public statement afterwards. Her expected departure from the Commons would be particularly difficult for Labour as her seat was seen at the last election as the key marginal the party needed to win to gain an overall majority.
Ms Kingham is one of six women MPs preparing to quit at the next election because of the poor facilities for mothers. Judith Church, MP for Dagenham, and Jenny Jones, MP for Wolverhampton South, have both announced they will step down and cite family pressures.
Anne Campbell, MP for Cambridge and a campaigner for more family-friendly working hours, said the dilemma faced by Ms Kingham proved the case for reform.
"If Tess has decided to stand down, that is very, very sad because we need more talented people like her. It shows that we need to urgently rethink what we are doing in the Commons," she said.
Ms Campbell said she had 210 MPs' signatures supporting radical reform on Commons working hours. "We need to finish before 10pm and programme more Bills. There have been some signs of progress but we are in danger of getting bogged down. "I want reform in place by later this year. This should be the last parliamentary session to have the current rules."