Backbench rebels may force rail defeat

The Government faces the prospect of another humiliating defeat at the hands of its own backbenchers if it tries to reverse a Lords amendment allowing British Rail to bid for services after privatisation.

A list of 16 Conservative MPs who are liable to vote against a move to reimpose the ban on BR bids for passenger franchises has been shown to government whips.

The warning was delivered by Sir Keith Speed, the MP for Ashford and de facto leader of Tory rail privatisation rebels.

Labour yesterday promised 'a long hot summer for the Tories' over rail privatisation. The party's transport team will tour the network, talking to passengers and trying to intensify pressure on Tory MPs in their constituencies.

With John Major's overall Commons majority reduced to 17 after the Christchurch by- election, it could take as few as nine backbenchers to stop ministers reversing the Lords vote to scrap the ban on BR bidding in competition with the private sector.

John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, could now be forced to drop plans to reinstate it when the Railways Bill returns to the Commons in the autumn.

Mr MacGregor has always insisted that allowing BR to bid would strike at the heart of the Government's plans to break up BR's monopoly - because the state system would be able to undercut the opposition.

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