Blair warned: More to follow Sedgemore out of the party

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Tony Blair has been warned that other ex-Labour MPs could join Brian Sedgemore by leaving the party after the general election in a concerted protest against his leadership.

Tony Blair has been warned that other former Labour MPs could join Brian Sedgemore by leaving the party after the general election in a concerted protest against his leadership.

The Independent revealed yesterday that Mr Sedgemore, who was a Labour MP for 27 years, had joined the Liberal Democrats.

Although the Prime Minister sought to belittle Mr Sedgemore as someone voters "have never heard of", there were fears in the Labour camp that his decision would make Iraq and Mr Blair's "trust problem" even more prominent issues in the election campaign.

David Hinchliffe, who is standing down as MP for Wakefield, confirmed Mr Sedgemore's statement that a group of backbenchers had discussed quitting the party en masse after the election in an attempt to provoke a leadership crisis for Mr Blair.

Mr Hinchliffe said: "I was approached by a colleague who asked me what I intended to do. I said I would remain in the party. The colleague indicated they were likely to leave the party and also that Brian Sedgemore was likely to leave. When he said there have been discussions, Brian is correct."

Jubilant Liberal Democrats paraded their recruit at their daily press conference. Charles Kennedy, the party leader, hailed Mr Sedgemore's switch as "a pivotal moment" in the campaign. He said it was indicative of "a massive shift of grassroots Labour opinion away from the Government, not just on Iraq but on other issues as well".

In an appeal to disillusioned Labour voters, Mr Kennedy said: "The Conservatives self-evidently cannot win this general election. People who want to vote against Tony Blair for a variety of reasons can and should vote Liberal Democrat in that knowledge."

Mr Sedgemore said his defection was a principled stand against the war and what he attacked as "deeply illiberal measures" passed by the Government. "I feel happy and comfortable today, whereas a few weeks ago I felt miserable," he said.

He was "absolutely sure" that a group of retiring MPs might quit Labour "because I was one of them", but he did not think they would join the Liberal Democrats.

Mr Blair said: "If he wants to choose to vote Liberal Democrat, and there's not going to be a Liberal Democrat government, that's up to him." He said education and health were more important to voters, who were "not particularly interested in someone they have never heard of who's not even standing as a candidate at the general election".

The Prime Minister said he had never presented himself as a "traditional socialist" and contrasted New Labour policies with those of the Liberal Democrats, which he described as
"a joke".

Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, said: "If people decide that they don't want to support a Labour government and they would prefer to support the Liberal Democrats, then what they are really doing is allowing the Conservative Party to walk in through the back door."

Michael Howard, the Tory leader, renewed his claim that Mr Blair was a liar, and the Conservatives said they would give Iraq a higher profile in their campaign after Mr Sedgemore's defection, to raise the issue of trust in the Prime Minister. They rushed out a poster featuring Mr Blair and the words: "If he's prepared to lie to take us to war, he's prepared to lie to win an election."

Labour traditionalists are likely to be upset by a report from the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) to be published today which shows that income inequality is "effectively unchanged" after eight years of Labour rule, despite Gordon Brown's redistributive tax credit schemes. But the IFS says household disposable income has risen in real terms by 2.5 per cent a year between 1996-97 and 2003-04, compared with a 1.6 per cent a year rise under Conservative governments between 1978-79 and 1996-97.

The study says: "Inequality remains roughly the same as when Labour took office, although this overall lack of change is the combination of rising inequality over the early part of Labour's first parliament and then an apparent, although not yet statistically significant, decline over the second.

"Our analysis suggests that in the absence of Labour's redistributive tax and benefit policies, inequality might have continued to rise, although perhaps not as sharply as it did under Margaret Thatcher's governments."

The Liberal Democrats' assault on Mr Blair over Iraq seems to have paid dividends in the polls. The latest daily tracker poll by Populus for The Times and ITV News put Mr Kennedy's party up two points yesterday, after the Liberal Democrat leader put the Prime Minister's record on the war at the heart of his campaign.

The party was up two points at 21 per cent, compared with the day before, while Labour was down one point on 40 per cent and the Conservatives ­ who also supported the war ­ were down two at 31 per cent.

Populus interviewed 1,427 adults by telephone between 22 and 25 April.

Last night a Mori poll for The Financial Times showed Labour's lead slipping among people certain to vote. The survey put Labour on 36 per cent, Conservatives on 34 per cent and Liberal Democrats on 23 per cent.

The same poll last week put Labour on 39 per cent, the Tories on 32 per cent and the liberal Democrats on 22 per cent.

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