Support for Hain in the face of Labour loyalist fury

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Indy Politics

Peter Hain faced an organised backlash from Government loyalists yesterday over his call for the rich to pay higher taxes.

A group of junior ministers from constituencies previously held by the Tories have orchestrated a series of messages from MPs to Downing Street and the Whips' office, demanding more discipline from cabinet ministers.

The quartet of ministers - Ruth Kelly, Jacqui Smith, Melanie Johnson and Chris Leslie - all represent constituencies taken from the Tories in the 1997 landslide and fear that loose talk about higher taxes could cost them their seats.

The Leader of the Commons was forced into an embarrassing climbdown after he had released part of a speech he was proposing to make, which would have called for a new top rate of tax for the highest earners.

Mr Hain claimed that his words had been cleared with Downing Street before he showed them to the Daily Mirror and read them out on the Today programme.

This has been flatly denied by government spokesmen, who say that Alastair Campbell first learned what the cabinet minister planned to say when he heard it on the radio. The Chancellor Gordon Brown was also furious that he was not forewarned. The passage was removed on Tony Blair's instructions when Mr Hain delivered the speech in Cardiff on Friday.

The idea of opening a debate on income tax appears to have been hatched by Mr Hain alone, without encouragement from any of his government colleagues. One fellow cabinet minister said: "It's classic Peter - as ever trying to position himself and, I'm afraid, putting narrow personal interests above those of the Government.

"He has managed to do what no Cabinet minister should do - antagonise both Blair and Brown. Normally it's one or the other and you can just about survive, but when it's both - uh, oh!"

Others defended Mr Hain's right to raise the issue. Robin Cook, the former Foreign Secretary warned that excessively tight discipline could do the Government "immense damage".

He added: "I think Peter Hain is an immense asset to the Cabinet precisely because he's thinking for himself and saying things which may be original and difficult.

"I happen not to agree with him on the top rate of income tax, but I think people should be allowed to murmur in public when they have got private thoughts about it," he told BBC Radio 4's Any Questions? programme.

Another former cabinet minister, Stephen Byers, condemned Mr Hain's talk of higher tax rates as "electorally dangerous" but supported the idea that the tax burden should be shifted to relieve people on middle incomes.

In an interview for GMTV's Sunday programme, he suggested that the first line of attack should be 100,000 wealthy foreign nationals who live in the UK but pay no tax here - some of whom have been generous donors to the Labour Party.

"We should say that the present burden of tax is about right and then we can have a debate within those parameters," Mr Byers said.