Clare Short faces being thrown out of the Labour Party for a call she made in The Independent for a "hung Parliament".
The former International Development Secretary, who has said she will stand down at the next election, has been accused of encouraging voters to switch away from Labour. The Chief Whip, Jacqui Smith, announced yesterday that she is lodging a complaint with Labour's national executive, arguing that Ms Short has broken a rule which bars any party member from encouraging electors to vote against a Labour candidate.
"We have had calls coming in from MPs all day about this, and people are very angry," a party source said. "Jacqui has written to Clare twice before about her interesting thoughts that her parliamentary colleagues should be defeated. Previously we tried to arrange a meeting with four or five of the most marginal MPs who wanted to talk to her about it, but she refused."
Sally Keeble, MP for Northampton North, who was Clare Short's deputy at the International Development Department, said: "She has done more damage to herself than anybody else could have done to her. Now it has become a disciplinary offence and the party will have to deal with it. There is a gut instinct that you stay loyal to the party."
Another West Midlands MP, John Spellar, described the article as "extraordinarily self-indulgent".
The words that could cost Ms Short her party membership card were published in yesterday's Independent, in which she argued that "the change we need is a hung parliament". She added: "The Chief Whip has warned me that I cannot recommend a hung parliament because it would mean Labour MPs losing their seats. I am standing down so that I can speak my truth."
The national executive will now have to judge whether these words are an incitement to voters to abandon Labour. Labour has a majority of 353 out of 637 voting MPs in Parliament. For there to be a parliament in which no single party has an overall majority, the number of Labour MPs would need to fall to 318 or fewer.
"Clare Short's public admission that she would welcome the defeat of her Labour parliamentary colleagues and the Labour Government at the next general election are completely unacceptable," Jacqui Smith said in a statement yesterday. "As Chief Whip, I can recommend the Whip be withdrawn from parliamentary colleagues or suspend them from the Whip. However, I am now taking the matter further by referring her conduct to the party chair and the general secretary of the party."
Having the Whip withdrawn would mean that Ms Short was still an MP and a party member, but she would no longer be counted as a Labour MP. An unrepentant Ms Short told Sky News: "If she does that, that's fine. She must do what she must do, I am doing what I think is right."
But some Labour MPs hoped a compromise could be reached to avoid expelling one of Labour's most famous members. David Winnick told BBC Radio 4's PM programme: "I have always had time for Clare. She does invite controversy, has done so since she entered Parliament and I don't suppose for one moment she loses any sleep, leaving aside the present situation."
Stephen Pound, another MP, said: "The general feeling in the party is that she was actually a good International Development Secretary, so let's talk it through and not get precipitous."
If Ms Short is expelled, she will be only the fourth sitting Labour MP to suffer that fate in 15 years. Ironically, Ms Short herself played a prominent role in removing two, Dave Nellist and Terry Fields, who were thrown out in September 1991 for belonging to the far-left Militant organisation.
"She sat and did her knitting waiting for the decision so that she could rush out and announce it," Mr Nellist said. "Clare's problem is going to be that there is no one left in the Labour Party to fight for her."
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