Rebel ringleader faces Labour plot to oust him from seat

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Indy Politics

Senior ministers are seeking to punish a leading rebel backbencher following two embarrassing defeats in the Commons this week over the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill.

The Chief Whip, Hilary Armstrong, who has been accused of bungling the votes, is also expected to crack down on Labour MPs to force through highly controversial measures on ID cards and anti-terror laws. They will be prevented from using "slips" to excuse themselves from Commons votes and will have foreign travel curtailed.

However, some ministers have privately discussed taking tougher action against one of the veteran rebel ringleaders, Bob Marshall Andrews, a QC and a leading campaigner against the war in Iraq. He was privately accused of colluding with Tory opponents of the religious hatred legislation. Some ministers want him to be deselected from his Medway constituency.

"We don't mind him voting against the Government, but colluding with the Tories is beyond the pale," one Labour insider said.

Any bid to oust Mr Marshall Andrews from his seat would have to go through Labour's NEC.

Yesterday he said: "Nothing will be gained by personal recriminations in these circumstances, absolutely nothing, because there is no personal animosity here as far as I am concerned. It is simply and solely a matter of principle. All these matters of principle revolve around civil liberties in which this Government has a poor record."

Government whips are threatening to cancel all leave and impose much tougher whips on a string of bills which are certain to cause more rebellions in the next few weeks. Labour MPs were warned by Ms Armstrong in a note obtained by The Independent that they would have three-line whips - meaning no absenteeism - for four consecutive days before the half-term recess.

There will be three-line whips on the ID Cards Bill on 13 February, the remaining stages of the Health Bill - which will have a free vote on a smoking ban - on 14 February, the Lords' amendments to the Terrorism Bill on 15 February and even a routine uprating order on social security benefits on 16 February.

The Education Bill is regarded as the big challenge to Mr Blair's authority. The Government has signalled it is ready to compromise by tightening admissions proposals and banning parental interviews for pupil selection. Local authorities will be given a strategic role and a commissioner will have more powers to ensure that schools obey the rules.

Mr Blair has also given the Chief Whip his personal backing ahead of the showdown votes. He was blamed personally for one of this week's Commons defeats because he failed to turn up and the Government lost by one vote. It is understood Mr Blair was in his room at the Commons when the vote took place, making the defeat all the more galling. The débâcle was discussed by the Cabinet yesterday and Mr Blair said he blundered.

"There was a brief discussion, but it was brief, and the Prime Minister... fully accepted his own responsibility for missing the second vote," said Mr Blair's official spokesman.

But others still blame the Chief Whip. A Liberal Democrat whip said: "Armstrong was complacent. We knew we could win, but we didn't let them have any clues." The Liberal Democrats used a plot in the US West Wing television series in which rebels ambushed a Democrat majority by hiding before a vote.

At least 10 Liberal Democrat MPs came back for the vote after campaigning in the Dunfermline by-election. A dozen Labour MPs were still in Scotland as the vote took place. Ms Armstrong is said by friends to be "badly bruised" and could lose her job in the next reshuffle.