Rebel MPs defeat Blair over watchdog sackings

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of his own backbenchers last night when scores of Labour MPs rebelled over the sacking of two committee chairman.

Labour whips were forced into a climbdown after the Government suffered its first Commons defeat since coming to power in 1997. They promised to reverse the decision to remove Gwyneth Dunwoody and Donald Anderson, who were sacked from the chairmanship of two powerful select committees.

MPs were surprised by the scale of the revolt, involving loyalists, former ministers and left-wingers, which rejected nominations for the influential transport and foreign affairs select committees, two of the backbench panels that hold ministers to account. Ms Dunwoody was excluded from the transport committee after criticising ministers over Railtrack and the air traffic sell-off. Mr Anderson was excluded from the foreign affairs committee, provoking a bitter split within the Parliamentary Labour Party, amid claims that the high command was riding roughshod over grassroots opinion.

Rebel backbenchers and opposition MPs cheered as they voted first by 301 votes to 232 to throw out nominations to the foreign affairs committee. Minutes later, MPs voted by an even larger majority of 87 to reject the proposed membership of the transport committee. MPs had been given a free vote in an attempt to appease backbench anger over Mr Blair's alleged "control freakery".

Mr Anderson hailed the results as a "rubicon decision with no going back". He said: "I hope the whips would have learnt a lesson from this. It really is a peasants' revolt and a great day for Parliament. Parliament said in effect to the Government, 'With all yourmajority you cannot ride roughshod over Parliament'."

A spokesman for the Chief Whip, Hilary Armstrong, said: "We will respond to the will of the House and a new list will be put forward to the Parliamentary Labour Party on Wednesday morning and that list will include Donald Anderson and Gwyneth Dunwoody."

Chris Smith, the former secretary of state for culture, media and sport who had been expected to take over the chairmanship of the foreign affairs committee, said he was withdrawing from the list of nominations.

The revolt came despite assurances from Robin Cook, the Leader of the House of Commons, that the Government would consider reforming the nominations system in the autumn. The furore even led to the intervention of the former speaker Baroness Boothroyd, who urged MPs to reassert the independence of Parliament by reinstating the independent-minded chairmen.

Speaking during the three-hour debate, Ms Dunwoody she had been "astonished" by her sacking. She said: "What we do on select committees matters because the House of Commons must never become a great morass of people doing what they are told not by the electorate but by the executive. That's why it is important that we vote on who goes on which committee, that is why it's important that we say to the electorate as a whole that we do a job that is important.

"It is because I have faith in the ability of the Labour Party and a Labour government to take just decisions that I know they will not be frightened of the role of select committees in checking what they have done, what they are doing and what they intend to do. It's why we were all elected and if we forget it the electorate will not."

The former social security minister Frank Field, who was also denied a select committee seat, told MPs: "The Government ... sadly continue in this parliament, to give an image ... that one can ride roughshod, one can grab anything, take anything, that we rule, no matter what people say."