The Government sounded the alarm bell that it could lose a crucial vote on foundation hospitals today by ordering Richard Caborn, the Sports minister, to take part by flying home before the Rugby World Cup final in Australia.
Mr Caborn, who attended England's World Cup semi-final on Sunday, was said to be furious at the decision to bring him back. He had hoped to use the time before Saturday's final to lobby for Britain's bid to stage the 2012 Olympic Games. Asked how the minister felt about his summons, Mr Caborn's spokesman said: "I can't tell you. It's before the watershed." Taxpayers will pay for Mr Caborn and two officials to be flown back to London - and for Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, to fly to Sydney for the final. Downing Street declined to estimate the costs of the travel arrangements for the two ministers but played down the move as the "normal practice" for an important vote.
Government sources said yesterday that it could lose the vote on the Health and Social Care Bill because many Tories did not bother to turn out in July, when Labour's majority was cut to 35, the lowest since Tony Blair came to power in 1997. The election of Michael Howard is expected to boost his party's attendance at the first important Commons vote since he became Tory leader. The Labour whips' surprise decision to recall Mr Caborn was both a sign that there could be a knife-edge vote and a warning to wavering Labour MPs that they could inflict a humiliating defeat if they fail to support the Government.
But Labour MPs were also warned by Frank Dobson, a former secretary of state for health, that the foundation hospitals plan could cost them votes - and possibly their seats - at the next general election.
In a letter, Mr Dobson and David Hinchliffe, chairman of the Health Select Committee, said the proposal would harm Labour candidates in areas where hospitals did not secure foundation status because staff would be poached. In areas where foundation hospitals were set up, there would be "messy" and costly elections to their boards. "None of the claimed benefits of foundation hospitals are likely to show up before the general election. So the public will see nothing but trouble," the letter said.
John Reid, the Health Secretary, told Labour MPs they would play into the hands of Mr Howard and hereditary peers if they defeated the Government. The House of Lords voted against foundation hospitals earlier this month.
Mr Reid said: "Why should Labour MPs hand Michael Howard a political victory?" He added: "Since the last vote, the Conservatives in the House of Lords and the House of Commons have made clear, whatever the merits of the case, that they will be acting party-politically to try to wound the Government. They will use their power, and their hereditary peers in the Lords, to try to achieve this. Together with the British Medical Association, the same coalition opposed the creation of the NHS in the 1940s. We did not allow them to beat us then. We will not allow them to beat us now."
Frank Field, a former social security minister, predicted a bigger Labour revolt than in July, when 62 Labour MPs rebelled. He said: "If the Government stubbornly try to push this reform through in its entirety, irrespective of what people have been telling it for many months, then it obviously stands a very good chance of losing this part of the Bill."