Whips in effort to stiffen Tory resolve

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The Independent Online
Government whips will today intensify the exercise they began over the weekend - seeking to avert the humiliation of a government defeat when the Commons debates the Scott report in a week's time.

Tory MPs such as Rupert Allason and Richard Shepherd, who suggested that the resignations of Sir Nicholas Lyell and William Waldegrave would be the "inevitable conclusion" of the affair, have expressed serious reservations about the Scott report in public.

Another possible backbench doubter, Quentin Davies, said yesterday he wanted more time to read the report and possibly to meet the two ministers before finally making up his mind. Sir Peter Thurnham's threat to resign the party whip - and possibly even defect - leaves open the possibility that the government could be defeated.

But a crucial question is whether the nine Ulster Unionist MPs would actually vote against the Government. If they do not, or even if they abstain, the Government could withstand a modest rebellion. David Trimble, the party's leader, has already expressed concerns over the handling of the report but in a guarded BBC Radio interview yesterday he would only say: "We need to look at it carefully ... There are quite complex issues and it would not be wise to rush to judgement."

Labour frontbenchers believe there is a chance that the UUP will vote with them on Monday but not the following day - when the Government will table a confidence motion if it is defeated on Monday. Labour's primary concern, however, will be to step up pressure on the Government to allow a motion for debate on Monday, which could be amended - in contrast to the procedural adjournment motion which ministers plan at present - thus forcing the resignation issue on to the Commons floor.

Margaret Beckett, Labour's trade and industry spokeswoman, yesterday seized on what she called "a very serious admission" on Jonathan Dimbleby on LWT by Ian Lang, the President of the Board of Trade, that "a secondary reason" for not announcing change of arms export guidelines - which Mr Waldegrave did not publicly disclose - was that it might cause a public row.

Mrs Beckett said: "For the first time a government minister has been forced on to the ground of discussing why Parliament was not fully informed - and therefore was misled - when up to now every minister has rejected this having ever happened." Mr Lang said it was a "very secondary reason ... amongst many other reasons".

Labour believes that the Government propaganda exercise which attended publication of the report last week may have backfired and yesterday they continued to try to exploit the situation. Robin Cook, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, complained to Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, that David Willetts, a parliamentary under-secretary, had been given an advance copy of the report to help him work on the defence.

Peter Mandelson, Labour's public services spokesman, complained in a letter to Sir Richard Scott that copies had been released in confidence only to those ministers who were "strictly and necessarily" involved in preparing the government's response. He said Mr Willetts, who works for the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, "was not in this category".

Tory ministers argue that Labour's attacks could help to unite Tories on the grounds that they will not want to be seen ganging up with Mr Cook.

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