Gordon Brown has been accused of delaying a controversial Bill on embryology and abortion in order to save votes in the Glasgow East by-election.
Labour MPs led by the former Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt were seeking to change legislation on Monday to make it easier for women to have an abortion. But the Government announced it was delaying the debate on the Bill until the autumn, after it was raised at a Cabinet meeting yesterday morning by the Government's chief whip, Geoff Hoon.
The legislation has upset the Roman Catholic church and could be an issue in the strongly working class seat in Glasgow, which has a large Catholic population.
Mr Brown, whose future could be in doubt if Labour is defeated by the SNP on 24 July, is pulling out all the stops to hold the seat. Theresa May, the shadow Leader of the House, accused him of postponing the Bill to avoid defeat.
Her claims were reinforced by Jim Dobbin, the Labour MP and chairman of Parliament's pro-life group, which opposes the liberalisation of abortion laws. Accusing ministers of acting "insensitively", he said: "The likely reason is the enormous public uproar the Bill, with its hugely controversial proposals, has had – particularly in areas such as Glasgow East."
The Tory MP Nadine Dorries, who has led a campaign to tighten abortion laws, said: "The Government is on the run and knows that the liberalising amendments on abortion that were being championed by its own MPs were deeply unpopular with the public at large."
The change of business was announced to the Commons by Harriet Harman, the Leader of the House. The changes contradicted advice given to the shadow Cabinet just 48 hours earlier.
Health ministers were also unaware at that stage that the Bill would be "pulled". The Independent has learnt it was discussed at a private meeting of Labour's parliamentary committee – the "shop stewards" for Labour MPs – with Ms Harman on Wednesday. But the turning point came yesterday at the Cabinet meeting.
The Prime Minister flew back from the G8 summit in Japan to renewed speculation about his future. There were claims that Mr Hoon has been sidelined by Mr Brown's ally, the deputy chief whip Nick Brown, and trusted lieutenants who have been ordered to tighten up discipline among Labour MPs.
Downing Street said the claims were "nonsense". Mr Brown also became embroiled in a row over the disclosure that nine million motorists could face vehicle excise duty bills of £245 by April 2010.
David Cameron, the Tory leader, claimed the Prime Minister had misled the Commons on 4 June when he said that most motorists would benefit from a change in Vehicle Excise Duty.