Tory `loss' in school Bill was a draw

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Labour celebrations over a government defeat inflicted on Monday proved premature last night as it emerged that a House of Commons vote was miscounted.

Confusion reigned as both main parties confirmed that the apparent one- vote opposition victory on the Education Bill was in fact a draw. Last night, House of Commons officials said that although such mistakes were not unknown they could not remember one on such a close vote.

Opposing sides traded accusations as the mistake was revealed, with the Prime Minister criticising Labour for "student union" tactics and the Opposition claiming the honours for pointing out the mistake.

The two "tellers" from each side, who counted the MPs through the lobbies, reported that government proposals on parental choice had been defeated by 273 votes to 272. However, the clerks who recorded each member's vote found that there were 272 on each side.

It was not clear last night whether the clerks had missed someone or whether the tellers, who are MPs, were to blame. One of the tellers for the government side was Anthony Coombs, a whip who was held responsible for another defeat over the same Bill in December. On that occasion Mr Coombs left the Bill's committee stage to fetch a colleague back for a vote but both men failed to get back in time.

Five cabinet ministers had failed to arrive in time for Monday night's vote, which was called by the Opposition after just three minutes of debate.

Yesterday Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, said the Government's proposals would have been passed if the vote had been correctly counted because parliamentary convention would have dictated that the speaker's casting vote was in favour.

However, Labour's Chief Whip, Donald Dewar, said this was not the case. The speaker must vote for the status quo in case of a tie, and as the clause in question had just been introduced that would mean the Bill would remain as it had been before, he said.

Mr Dewar joked that the episode illustrated the low standards of numeracy in Britain's schools. "There is indeed concern about standards of simple arithmetic when a Tory whip who went to a very good public school cannot count," he said.

At Question Time, the Prime Minister said the problem was being sorted out through "the usual channels."

"What is important is not Labour's student union ambushes of last night. What is important is what it shows about Labour Party policy, that they offer choice and opportunity for themselves ... and vote against it for people who happen not to be Labour MPs," he said.

A Conservative source said the party was actually happy to be defeated on the issue because it exposed Labour's opposition to the defeated measure, which would have allowed popular schools to expand without special permission.

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