Is Gwyneth Dunwoody the most dangerous woman in the Labour Party?

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She has been described as a battling butterball, a one-woman gunboat, a matronly figure whose very glance could slice a banana at fifty paces.

Gwyneth Dunwoody, the nearest thing Labour has to an Ann Widdecombe, was at it again yesterday as she attacked the Government's failure to invest in the railways.

Underlining her reputation as the one backbench MP ministers would most like to put into liquidation, the honourable member for Crewe and Nantwich was on vintage form in both the Commons and the airwaves.

In her role as chairman ("that's chairMAN not chairwoman" she points out) of the Commons transport select committee, Mrs Dunwoody said an efficient railway system needed investment on "a scale which dwarfs" current spending plans. Her committee's report on the network concluded, in typically forthright tones, that it was "astonished" that there was no contingency plan drawn up by Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport, to cope with Railtrack's failure to perform.

She had barely drawn breath on the railways when she got up in the Commons to launch a second attack on the Government, this time on its use of Lord Birt as a "blue skies" thinker on transport.

With Robin Cook, the Leader of the Commons, sitting glumly before her, Mrs Dunwoody stepped up her attack on the former BBC director general for his refusal to appear before her committee. Calling for a full-scale review of the conventions governing who can and cannot refuse to give evidence, she said it was unacceptable that a Downing Street adviser on such a key issue avoided public scrutiny.

It was a characteristically feisty performance from a woman described by some as Labour's new "enemy within", a backbencher with an unnatural sense of her own importance in a workplace where ego is not unknown.

Mrs Dunwoody, is, at 71, certainly one of the Government's most pungent critics. As the longest-serving woman MP in the Commons, she carries the independence of someone who is way past caring about preferment or patronage. Born into a Labour aristocracy – her late father Morgan Phillips was general secretary of the party – Mrs Dunwoody served as MP for Exeter from 1966 to 1970 and then for Crewe from 1974.

It was during her first stint in Parliament that she reached the high point of her Government career, becoming a junior minister at the Board of Trade in Wilson's administration.

She then held a plethora of posts within Labour's organisation through the 1980s and 1990s before establishing herself as chairman of the transport select committee in 1997.

A battle-scarred opponent of Militant and the far Left, she is regarded as a classic example of an Old Labour right-winger, swatting Trotskyists with as much passion as Tories. Mrs Dunwoody is, however, nothing if not politically incorrect on a range of issues and can often surprise her critics with her views. She is most decidedly anti-devolution, anti-EU, anti-tokenism for women, but just as vehemently pro-fur, pro-Israel and pro-abortion. Some MPs were upset by her opposition to breastfeeding in committee.

She is a friend of Betty Boothroyd and during her bid to become Speaker herself last year, she won support from Tory MPs who admire her blunt defence of Parliament.

Perhaps as a result of such support, she does have her critics on the Labour benches, some of whom loathe her hectoring tone, claiming her arrogance in committee hides a lack of knowledge.

Nevertheless, the extent of her support was underlined last year when Labour MPs rebelled against Downing Street to vote to renew her tenure on the transport committee, together with Donald Anderson at foreign affairs.

As an MP for a constituency with a long railway tradition, and sponsorship from the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union, Mrs Dunwoody has seized her chance to turn the railway debate into a key issue.

When Mr Byers appeared before her a fortnight ago, her withering put-down of Lord Birt's role prompted the Transport Secretary to admit the peer needed something to keep him occupied.

Keeping herself busy is not such a problem for Mrs Dunwoody, who is relishing the fact that transport is top of the political agenda. Whether Tony Blair takes the same view is, to say the least, open to debate.

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