Resistance to rail sale overcome: Crisis averted as peers back down over privatisation and Labour blames Government for Bill's 'shambolic' progress

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Indy Politics
THE TROUBLED rail privatisation measure cleared its final hurdle yesterday amid recriminations over Wednesday night's stormy scenes in the Commons and a renewed pledge that a future Labour government would repeal the legislation.

Peers backed down, allowing John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, to seek Royal Assent today, the last day of the parliamentary session.

The shuttling of the Bill between the two Houses of Parliament ended after Lord Tordoff, the Liberal Democrat whip, withdrew without a vote an attempt to send back to the Commons an amendment allowing British Rail to win a service franchise if its bid was significantly cheaper.

The retreat from a potential constitutional crisis was earlier signalled by the Tory rebel leader Lord Peyton, who warned: 'It would be very unwise at this stage to press it further.'

It was also made clear to Lord Tordoff that Labour peers would not support his amendment. The vote could not have been won without an alliance of rebel Conservatives, Labour peers and cross-benchers.

John Prescott, outgoing transport spokesman, insisted that Labour had not prematurely given up the fight.

The revolt had damaged the Government and 'brought home to the electorate that this is a bad measure. It confirmed the original suggestion that this was a privatisation too far,' he said.

Mr Prescott predicted that the Bill would now be 'left on the shelf' because BR management buy-outs would know that an incoming Labour government would return rail services to the public sector.

Mr Prescott was unrepentant over Wednesday night's Labour guerrilla tactics, when MPs prolonged the length of votes by locking themselves in toilets and engineering recounts in response to frantic attempts by the Government to secure the Bill's passage that evening.

'The Government was cheating,' Mr Prescott said. 'They got everything they deserved.'

Baroness Turner of Camden, a Labour peer, said after the debate that the Government's conduct of the Bill had been shambolic. 'The introduction of amendments at a late stage without the opportunity for proper debate, with great arrogance, has the result of a large number of other parties reacting against the Government.'

But Betty Boothroyd, the Commons Speaker, announced that she would make her own inquiries.

An allegation that the 20-stone David Lightbown, the deputy Chief Whip, intimidated the Liberal Democrat Jim Wallace was denied by a government colleague.

John Major said during prime minister's questions that John Smith, the Labour leader, let some of his colleagues behave in a way that was a disgrace to Parliament.

Mr Major added that the Government remained committed to protecting the pension rights of existing, deferred and future British Rail pensioners affected by privatisation.

(Photograph omitted)