For once, the 'paper tiger' backbenchers show claws

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Indy Politics

When a showdown is predicted at the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, the promised rebellion against the leadership often fizzles out. Sometimes, the rebels do not even turn up.

When a showdown is predicted at the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, the promised rebellion against the leadership often fizzles out. Sometimes, the rebels do not even turn up.

But yesterday's meeting, lived up to its advance billing and was the most stormy for a long time. The rebels turned up, spoke up and called for Tony Blair to stand down. They were jeered, booed and hissed and some of their speeches could barely be heard in a packed Commons Committee Room 14.

There was an inevitable, stage-managed show of support for the Prime Minister. There always is. But there was also genuine anger directed at the dissidents who had gone public with their demands for Mr Blair to go.

After the arch-rebel Bob Marshall-Andrews called on the Prime Minister to resign sooner rather than later, Claire Curtis-Thomas, the MP for Crosby, looked him in the eye and said the dissidents should "find another party". She was cheered to the rafters.

The rebel forces were outnumbered. Only six of the 23 speakers were hostile to Mr Blair and only three said he should go. But the rebels complained that many more in their ranks, including Robin Cook, were not called to speak by the acting PLP chairman, Ann Clywd, even though she allowed the scheduled hour-long meeting to overrun so people could "let off steam".

One rebel likened the meeting to a rally. "They had the muppets cheering him when he came in, when he stood up, and when he sat down. It was clearly a show of strength by the ultra-loyalists," one said.

Glenda Jackson, MP for Hampstead and Highgate, was heckled before she began speaking but was the most brutal critic. She said it was time for "some home truths". She told Mr Blair: "In my constituency, I was not just fighting the against the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives. The fundamental problem for the Labour Party is you."

Frank Dobson, the former health secretary, called on Mr Blair to go before Labour's vote slumped in next year's local elections in London. "If we don't learn this lesson we are going to get thumped," he said.

Michael Meacher, the former environment minister, expressed concern about the disillusionment among Labour's core vote. Tony Lloyd, another former minister, called for a better dialogue between Government and Labour MPs in the light of the smaller majority.

The Blairites used remarkably similar language, almost as though they had been given a line. Sion Simon, MP for Birmingham Erdington, said: "The silent majority is supporting the Prime Minister. The silent majority won't be silenced."

Mr Blair entered the room with his human shield, Gordon Brown. Although loyalists dismiss the dissidents as "paper tigers", Mr Blair's critics are sharpening their claws. "We are in for a bumpy few months," one loyalist admitted.

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