Tories abstain to avoid defeat

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The Government is taking emergency measures to avert a dangerously narrow Commons vote on Thursday by "pulling the rug" on a Labour attempt to defeat it after a two-day debate on European agriculture policy, writes Donald Macintyre.

Loyal Tories will adopt a policy of mass abstention after a Government decision to issue a one-line whip for the vote on the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), which Labour is using in an effort to highlight Tory divisions on Europe.

The move will allow party managers to claim that the now virtually certain defeat - on a technical motion on the adjournment of the House - is merely symbolic.

Nevertheless, in a climate made considerably more febrile by continuing backbench anger at the European Union beef ban and complaints about Government handling of the issue, ministers still face two possible difficulties.

One is that if the outcome of talks on the ban go badly for Britain, Euro-sceptics could carry out their threat to join Labour in the division lobbies in an expression of their discontent.

The other is that Labour could use an early Opposition Day to put forward a motion criticising handling of the CAP in terms which could attract the support of enough Euro-sceptics to offer a chance of a government defeat. Labour business managers were not ruling out such a move last night.

Euro-sceptic sensitivities are also likely to be exacerbated by the presence in London this week on a state visit by President Jacques Chirac, who is expected to to take a firm line against more than a gradual easing of the beef ban and to make clear his continued strong support for a single currency.

Meanwhile, John Major in a a strategy session with middle-ranking ministers at Chequers stressed the need to bury internal party differences and concentrate Tory fire on Labour.