- 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
- 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
- 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
- BEEF BATTLE
- 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."
- HUNTING BAN
- 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.
- RACE FOR MAYOR
- 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.
- LORDS REFORM
- 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
- The Commons has yet to ratify the deal letting some hereditaries
remain and ministers could still engineer its cancellation.
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