12 ministers 'to quit' over embryo bill
TWELVE Government ministers were last night poised to quit office over the embryo research bill row, leaving Gordon Brown "no option" but to back down and allow a free vote.
Senior Labour sources claim the Prime Minister faces a catastrophic rebellion over the Government-backed bill, which would allow the creation of part-human, part-animal embryos for research.
A U-turn by Brown would represent the biggest humiliation to his leadership since he came to power as Labour leader and PM in June last year.
The row exploded last week after Cardinal Keith O'Brien, leader of Scotland's Roman Catholics, described the move as a "monstrous Frankenstein" plan. Brown is being told by his own supporters that he must offer MPs a free vote to avoid a ministerial clear-out, which could include Catholic ministers such as Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly, Scottish Secretary Des Browne and Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy.
Brown's only public concession so far is to allow ministers to abstain, but it is believed this has failed to reassure some who want to be free to vote against the bill. One source said last night: "We could be looking at around 12 resignations. Either that, or they will say: 'I'm going to vote against and you can sack me.' Non-Catholic ministers are getting just as much pressure from their own churches and constituencies. It is really intense."
Northern Ireland minister Paul Goggins is a Catholic thought to have concerns about the bill. Government whips Frank Roy and Thomas McAvoy are also Catholics and are understood to have concerns. Business Minister Stephen Timms describes himself as a Christian Socialist. Other Catholic Ministers outside the Cabinet include David Cairns, Mike O'Brien, Pat McFadden and Jim Murphy.
Former cabinet minister Stephen Byers warned that Brown risked a backlash from voters if he insisted on wielding the whip over the issue. He said: "On matters like this I want to reach my own decision and not be instructed how to vote."
Several Scottish Labour MPs last night came forward to urge Brown to offer a free vote.
Mohammed Sarwar, the Labour MP for Glasgow Central, said he would abstain or vote against the bill because of his own beliefs as a Muslim and because he believed it represented the views of his constituents. "There should be a free vote, it's a matter of conscience," he said.
Ayrshire MP Brian Donohoe, who backs the plans, added: "I believe it is right that there is a free vote."
And Catholic Labour MP Jim Devine, who also backs the bill, said: "It's a similar issue to Trident. It should be a conscience vote. I don't want to see colleagues resign."
First Minister Alex Salmond – who backs a free vote – offered his qualified support for the bill last night. A spokesman for Salmond said: "This is a matter of conscience for SNP MSPs. He supports the bill subject to some safeguards."
Brown is reluctant to allow the whole bill to be a free vote because he considers it to be key Government legislation, extremely important to the UK's position at the cutting edge of stem-cell research.
A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister said it was still possible a free vote could be allowed, although they believed it was best for ministers who opposed the bill to abstain.
"The Prime Minister believes we should be guided by the best medical advice and by science," the spokeswoman added.
The Catholic Church in Scotland continued to pile pressure on Brown, saying it would name and shame MPs who supported the plans, and urged Catholics to campaign against them.
The leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales entered the debate by calling on Brown to allow a free vote on the controversial bill. The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, said: "I think Catholics in politics have got to act according to their Catholic convictions, so have other Christians, so have other politicians."
Campaigners in favour of the bill believe that even if a free vote is allowed they will comfortably win the day, predicting a majority of about 100.
Lib Dem MP Evan Harris said: "On a free vote, any Labour rebels would be exceeded in number by Liberal Democrats and Conservatives voting for the bill. The Labour Party is having an unnecessary fight with itself."
Several Labour MPs and peers led a counter-attack against the Catholic Church. Labour peer George Foulkes accused the cardinal of scaremongering. "We passed this bill on a whipped vote in the Lords without this kind of furore. It's about putting DNA into a cell, not tampering with human life or genetics in the way that Keith O'Brien suggests. The real humanity is with people that support research that saves people's lives," he said.
Labour MP Brian Iddon added: "The Roman Catholic church is being extremely emotive and creating muddle. I've had people writing to me saying, 'We don't want people who are half human, half cow walking down our street.'"
Labour MP Gordon Banks, whose brother has early-onset Alzheimer's, said the bill should be whipped because it significantly improve research into conditions such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
Banks, the MP for Ochil and South Perthshire, said it was reasonable to assume that the Prime Minister's view was influenced by his son's cystic fibrosis, a condition that could be helped by stem-cell research.
The Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and SNP are allowing a free vote on the bill.
LEADER: "PERVERSELY, ON THIS ISSUE CARDINAL O'BRIEN IS POLITICALLY RIGHT BUT MORALLY WRONG"
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