Rebels force Blair to halt key reforms

TONY Blair has put the brakes on his radical reform programme in a bid to quell growing unrest among Labour MPs, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.

Ministers have been ordered to postpone a shake-up of Incapacity Benefit (IB) for up to three months to give the Prime Minister badly needed time to sell the proposals to sceptical backbenchers.

A Scotland on Sunday investigation has established that up to 20 of the previously loyal Labour MPs who helped vote down the terror bill last week are prepared to rebel again over reform to benefits, schools and the NHS.

Blair's critics claim that, in a worst-case scenario for the Prime Minister, almost 90 Labour MPs could combine to defy the whips in the near future. Further parliamentary defeats would make it increasingly difficult for the Prime Minister to remain in office.

Blair's order to delay his reform programme at least until after Christmas is aimed at establishing a more "participatory" style of government and winning round as many rebels as possible to his view.

But there is little indication from Downing Street that the reforms will be watered down to any meaningful extent, and it appears increasingly likely that Blair's real strategy is simply to buy time.

Signs of the benefits reform delay emerged in the aftermath of Blair's first ever parliamentary defeat, last week, over controversial plans to extend police powers to hold terror suspects for up to 90 days.

Margaret Hodge, the minister charged with forcing through the drive to slash the 2.7 million roll of people claiming Incapacity Benefit, last night admitted that the timetable for the reforms was under review.

She said the move was necessary to "get everybody on board", and a result of the disruption caused by the change in leadership at her department following the resignation of David Blunkett.

Other controversial reform proposals include the release of English secondary schools from local authority control and a reorganisation of local health services that could transfer district nurses, therapists and chiropodists into private hands.

One former minister who rebelled last week said last night: "I didn't vote with the government on Wednesday because it would not have been the right thing to do on that particular issue. It doesn't mean I will not support them again in the future, but I do have real concerns about what is contained in some of the proposals the government is about to bring forward. I reserve the right to oppose anything that I don't believe is in the interests of the people we represent."

The reduction in Labour's majority to 66 means that any attempt to win parliamentary approval for the Prime Minister's reforms is vulnerable to defeat in a Commons vote whenever the number of Labour rebels moves above the mid-30s.

More than half of Wednesday's rebels opposed the government on at least 20 occasions in the last Parliament and have been labelled "serial rebels" by Labour whips.

But left-wing MP Alan Simpson claimed 64 Labour MPs actually joined last week's revolt, as 15 of them abstained on Blair's 90 days proposal.

Simpson also claimed that the ranks of rebels could be swelled to at least 89 - a quarter of the 356 in the Parliamentary Labour Party - when the reform proposals finally come before the Commons.

"My estimate is that we are are talking about 25 or more extra Labour MPs who are prepared to rebel," Simpson said.

Whips have put the dissidents under pressure to keep their intentions quiet, amid warnings about the potential impact on their careers.

But Scotland on Sunday has been told by more than half of the 20-plus "moderate" rebels identified by the whips that they reserve the right to rebel again.

Andy Love, the Scots-born MP for Edmonton in London, is one of 95 Labour MPs who have signed an Early Day Motion on the health proposals which is highly critical of the government.

The motion condemns the health changes as likely to "cause turmoil through the transfer of community hospitals and NHS staff ... to other providers and will affect the delivery of patient care and public health programmes".

Love said he would not be prevented from expressing his concerns about the reform plans.

Blair has called an emergency "political cabinet" meeting on Thursday to discuss how to tackle the crisis surrounding him, amid rumours of a mini-reshuffle.

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