David Cameron has overruled his shadow chancellor George Osborne in an attempt to defeat the Government’s controversial casino plans, The Sunday Telegraph can reveal.
The Tory leader has ordered his MPs to oppose Labour’s proposals for a super-casino in Manchester when they go before the Commons and Lords on Wednesday.
Conservative opposition means there is a real chance the proposal for 16 new casinos and one super-casino could be thrown out. The Liberal Democrats and a growing number of Labour MPs and peers are already expected to oppose the plan. But the Tory stance has come after a row at the highest levels of the party.
Mr Osborne, the MP for Tatton, shadow minister for Manchester and Mr Cameron’s closest ally, had initially persuaded a meeting of the shadow cabinet that the party must support Manchester.
Despite widespread criticism of the choice by MPs and campaigners who believe Blackpool would have been more suitable, a meeting of the Tory backbenchers‘ 1922 Committee on Wednesday, heard that the party whip would be to back the proposal.
However, barely 24 hours later, amid evidence of a growing rebellion on the Labour benches, and with dozens of Tory MPs and peers preparing to defy the whip to join them, Mr Cameron stepped in and changed the line to a three-line whip opposing the move. He instructed Hugo Swire, the shadow culture secretary, to telephone Tessa Jowell on Friday night and inform her that the Tories would oppose the plans. Mr Swire told Miss Jowell that she must withdraw the single order covering the super-casino along with the smaller casinos, and put the smaller -casinos only before Parliament, which the Tories would back. Manchester should be referred to a cross-party committee of MPs and peers for review. If she insisted on putting an „all or nothing“ order before MPs and peers they would vote against it.
The Tory U-turn came after new evidence that the choice of Manchester may have been flawed. Minutes from a Lords scrutiny committee show that the chief criterion for picking the site was ability to test „social impact“.
Prof Stephen Crow, the chairman of the Casino Advisory Panel which picked Manchester, admitted that he was looking for an urban area where the effects on the population could be monitored. Ministers have previously claimed that regeneration and jobs were a driving force behind the project. In a damning report, the House of Lords merits of statutory instruments committee concluded that the panel was in effect choosing „a research project“.
Criticising the decision to chose Manchester, the committee said: „Although Professor Crow was aware that the worst-off in society can be attracted to low-end gambling (such as bingo), the panel had not taken into account that 20 per cent of the population of Manchester is in receipt of income support.“
Asked whether he was minded to knock out any consideration of a „destination casino“ such as Blackpool because its population came from a wide area, Prof Crow said: „Yes.“
Asked whether the terms of reference made it „virtually impossible for you to recommend to the Government that there should be a destination casino“, Prof Crow said: „Yes.“
The Lords committee concluded: „The prime objective of the panel was to select the locations which provided the best possible test of social impact.“ It said this explained „some of the less obvious choices“ for smaller casinos.
„While Bath does not have the same level of pressing regeneration needs that many others face, it offers an opportunity to examine the impact of a small casino aimed at well-to-do gamblers in a heritage setting.“
Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay, the Liberal Democrat peer, said: „This report proves that the cards were marked, the dice loaded and the roulette wheel rigged against Blackpool.“