Pairing boycott tightens screw on Government

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Indy Politics
The Government's 35-vote majority for the second reading of the Finance Bill last Tuesday night illustrates the problem being created for John Major by Labour's present policy of non-co-operation.

Because Labour is refusing to "pair" off absent Tories, in protest against government "cheating" before Christmas, the Prime Minister and Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, accelerated their return from Pakistan to be back in good time for Tuesday's 10pm vote.

As a precaution against a Labour ambush, there were only four Conservative MPs absent from the vote - through illness - while Labour knew they would have 15 absentees.

But the Government could not count on that Labour deficit, and Labour Chief Whip Donald Dewar said yesterday: "They are having to keep large numbers of Members of Parliament here because they cannot tell on any particular vote how many will be needed to get their business through.

"Meanwhile, we can release colleagues to campaign in the country to work for victory in the constituencies."

Although the Government has no majority at all in the Commons, it won Tuesday night's vote so comfortably not only because of the number of Labour absentees, but also because of the erratic behaviour of the minority parties - another uncertainty that hangs over the government whips' office. Analysis of the vote shows that the 319 Tories present were supported by five Ulster Unionists - but another four Ulster Unionists did not vote.

On the other side of the House, the 257 Labour MPs were joined by 25 Liberal Democrats and seven nationalists, but one Liberal Democrat, Alex Carlile, was missing, along with Northern Ireland's four Social Democratic and Labour Party MPs, the three Democratic Unionists, Scottish Nationalist Roseanna Cunningham, and Robert McCartney, the UK Unionist.

Mr Dewar warned yesterday: "While non-co-operation continues, it will require discipline. When we can spring a surprise we will do so, but we will not play silly games. Tory backbench morale is already low. We intend to lower it still further."

But a game of cat-and-mouse is being played in the run-up to the election, and it is not being played by Labour alone. While the Prime Minister told reporters in Pakistan last Tuesday that he wanted to play the election timing long - giving a teasing hint of a preference for 1 May - the Conservatives appear to be playing it very short indeed.

Labour said yesterday that they and the Conservatives were allowed two- party political broadcasts over the next three months, and Labour would be running one today and another in March. The Conservatives had decided to run one on 21 January - and the second on 13 February. According to Labour, that suggested preparation for a possible election in March or early April. The guessing-game continues.