Dispute over vote shows Tory frailty


THE Conservative government yesterday shrugged off a surprise defeat in parliament as a miscount and said it would not change its tactics for the coming general election.

The opposition took advantage of ministers being away at a cabinet brainstorming session at the prime minister's country residence to stage a late-night ambush in the House of Commons in a vote about government education plans. Labour claimed a knife edge victory with 273 votes to the government's 272.

But the Education Secretary Ms Gillian Shephard, told BBC radio's lunchtime news yesterday there had been a miscount and the opposition victory would be short-lived. "We understand that last night the vote was in fact a tie which under the procedures of the house would have meant that the government didn't lose it, because in those circumstances the Speaker ... votes with the government."

Labour's senior parliamentary business manager, Mr Donald Dewar, said there was a discrepancy between the count of people passing through voting lobbies and the names recorded on a list.

Whatever happened, he continued, "it is further evidence of the confusion and chaos which is now surrounding activities in the House of Commons".

In another reflection of the often-shambolic conditions surrounding a parliament which many now see as lame-duck, the Speaker of the House, Ms Betty Boothroyd, yesterday made a personal statement after being asked a question on media reports of "sleaze" by a Labour MP, Mr Tam Dalyell.

Ms Boothroyd quoted Lord Nolan's first report into standards in public life as saying "the great majority of men and women in British public life are honest and hard-working and observe high ethical standards".