Mad Cow Crisis Sends Blair
Government Into Disarray
So, Where's The Beef?
By Anthony Bevins - Line One Political Editor
Tony Blair's Government was in disarray last night with Brussels giving France a fortnight's grace on its illegal beef ban, yet another embarrassingly big Labour revolt on welfare and confusion over the pledge to ban fox-hunting.
In a Commons vote on the Government's welfare reforms, Mr Blair's majority plunged from 177 to just 60 votes, with 53 Labour MPs voting against the Government and around two dozen abstaining.
Showing all the symptoms of mid-term crisis - general wear and tear, drift, and a loss of grip among ministers - the Government and Labour's machine are also embroiled in dispute and difficulty over the choice of candidate for London mayor and reform of the House of Lords.
After William Hague had ignored the European meat wars in Prime Minister's question time yesterday, it was left to others to lambast Agriculture Minister Nick Brown and European Commissioner David Byrne for allowing the French yet more time to drop their illegal beef ban. Talks are to be held between British, French and EU officials tomorrow on five points of "clarification" requested by the French.
They want BSE tests to be carried out on live cattle not showing signs of the disease, something for which no reliable test exists. They also want clearer rules on British beef exports, although they are clearly marked with UK origin. And they want to be satisfied about cattle traceability, processed beef safety and controls at abattoirs.
All those issues were dealt with satisfactorily, and painstakingly, before the EU agreed to lift the Europe-wide ban on August 1. Mr Brown insisted yesterday: "Nobody has given in to the French." The issues were "technical" and he added that they would be resolved within days rather than weeks.
The Prime Minister's official spokesman said the Government would not engage in "some macho game" or "the business of silly threats". It preferred a speedy resolution by negotiation rather than coercion through European Court action to uphold the law, he said. Tory spokesman Tim Yeo said: "Yet again, Labour is caving in."
If the French are still stalling on November 10, the EU's 20 Commissioners could well decide then - or not - to take France to court. They could also decide then whether to take enforcement action against rebel German states refusing British beef.
The Government's second big battlefront was on welfare reform.
With rebels refusing to be won over by Social Security Secretary Alistair Darling's concessions, it now faces a further revolt in the Lords next week as the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill nears next Thursday's make-or-break deadline for the year's legislation to pass on to the Statute Book. Ministers insisted that there would be "no more concessions" but they have said that before and their collective nerve broke. Curiously, Mr Darling took comfort from the fact that there were "only" 53 Labour rebels last night, rather than the 67 when it was before the Commons in May.
The third significant issue on which the Government is in disarray also involved a reform supported by the Prime Minister - and 410 other MPs - the ban on fox-hunting.
Reports yesterday suggested that the issue would yet again be left to a Private Member's Bill, with no official Government legislation, and that a conciliatory report would also be commissioned on the impact a ban would have on jobs.
Labour policy on fox-hunting has regularly appeared torn between the impassioned demands of Labour supporters for an outright ban and the counter-clamour from the countryside lobby.
Mr Blair told the Commons yesterday that Labour opponents of fox-hunting should not believe everything they read in the papers about possible retreat. But his spokesman sowed further confusion, saying of press reports: "There were bits that were right, and bits that were wrong."
Home Secretary Jack Straw refused to discuss the detail of his plans at a private meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, simply saying that he hoped Labour MPs would be satisfied by an announcement expected some time after next Tuesday's pre-Budget statement from Chancellor Gordon Brown.
Brussels last night gave France just under two weeks to lift its ban on British beef or face legal action. But British MEPs attacked European Commissioner David Byrne for yet another delay and Agriculture Minister Nick Brown for caving in to French demands for extra time and more safety checks.
France wants to see tougher labelling and live-testing of cattle for BSE. The problem is that BSE tests on animals which do not yet show signs of the disease are still at the research stage. The European Commission has warned that tests do not give a 100 per cent guarantee to the consumer, and a British spokesman said: "If we thought there were reliable tests we would apply them."
German Socialist MEP Dagmar Roth-Behrendt said: "It is astonishing that member states want more clarification, when they've been discussing this for one-and-a-half years."
MR BLAIR was scathing about reports of a Government "retreat" on fox-hunting and Home Secretary Jack Straw promised pro-ban Labour MPs there would be a "satisfactory" way forward next week.
There was widespread confusion at Westminster though after Government sources said ministers would back a Private Member's Bill - ruling out Government legislation - in the next year's Parliamentary session. Confusion was increased by a suggestion that ministers would commission a report into the impact of a fox-hunting ban on the rural economy - a clear hint of conciliation.
The Prime Minister said MPs should not believe all they read in the papers but his spokesman said: "There were bits that were right and bits that were wrong."
The only certainty is that any legislation will get through the Commons but will then be thwarted by the Lords.
Embarrassment was mounting for Labour yesterday over the selection of a candidate to run for mayor of London. With less than a fortnight before the shortlist is named on November 16, speculation rages over whether left-winger Ken Livingstone will be allowed to stand.
Amid growing alarm that he could defeat Tony Blair's candidate Frank Dobson, senior figures are said to be urging the party to risk short-term pain by blocking Livingstone. But party officials fear that would anger activists and destroy morale.
Members are already dismayed that, despite earlier promises of a one-member-one-vote ballot to pick the candidate, the leadership plumped for an electoral college giving more weight to the votes of unions and traditionally loyal MPs.
Meanwhile, Mr Dobson's campaign has sparked complaints over its use of party membership lists.
THE 75 hereditary peers elected by colleagues to stay in the Lords after most are evicted will be named tomorrow. They will remain until a new second chamber is established.
Fittingly, the 42 Tories, 28 independents, three Lib Dems and two Labour peers will learn of their future on Guy Fawke's Night when Britain marks the last time someone tried to re-arrange Parliament in a big way. They will be among the 92 hereditaries - 17 have already secured places - to stay under a deal with the Government.
That number was boosted on Tuesday with the shock announcement that 10 hereditaries had been made life peers and so will stay in their own right.
The Commons has yet to ratify the deal letting some hereditaries remain and ministers could still engineer its cancellation.
© Express Newspapers 2000

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