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Monday, 23 April, 2001, 13:15 GMT 14:15 UK
Government plays down race row
Home Secretary Jack Straw
Straw has denied Labour is exploiting race issue
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

There are clear signs emerging that the government is eager to damp down the row over racism which has gripped Westminster over the Easter break amid fears the issue spinning out of its control.

Until now it was the Tories - and William Hague in particular - who were suffering most from the controversy.

There appeared to be a deep split at the very top of the party over whether or not individuals should sign the CRE's anti-racism pledge.

William Hague looked incapable of imposing discipline on his MPs and the whole party line appeared confused and contradictory.

And Mr Hague's problems have not gone away - Ann Widdecombe continues to describe the pledge as "silly" and Michael Howard has been accused of exploiting the issue through an advertisement by his local party referring to "bogus asylum seekers."

Tory leader William Hague
Hague accused of weak leadership
But the focus of attention has now started to switch onto the Labour party.

There are allegations the CRE has been packed with Labour supporters and that its pledge was a plot cooked up with the government to discredit William Hague.

Foreign Secretary Robin Cook's "chicken tikka masala" speech backfired and Doreen Lawrence - the mother of murder victim Stephen Lawrence - has accused all parties of using the issue for political gain.

Asian Labour peer Lord Paul has branded the pledge "meaningless" and suggested the whole row should be calmed down.

Low key

Maverick Labour backbencher Tam Dalyell has refused to sign the document, claiming it is "patronising and ill thought out."

So, for the first time since the row erupted, the government is getting as much flak as the opposition.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the language coming out of Downing Street is now notably low key.

The prime minister's spokesman stressed that the issue of immigration and asylum was an important one and the Tories had every right to raise it but it had to be separated from the issue of racism.

He confirmed Labour MPs had not been ordered to sign the pledge and insisted that Tony Blair was not "sitting around clicking on web sites to see who has not signed."

The whole tone was that this was not an issue that was dominating the government's agenda.

Home Secretary Jack Straw has also insisted he does not consider William Hague a racist, simply a weak leader.

Tories damaged

It is now clear that both Labour and the Tories would be delighted to see the back of the affair.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy
Kennedy turned on Tories
Labour, in particular, probably thinks it has already got the best mileage it can out of the issue so now would be a good time to move on before the spotlight lingers too much on them.

And the Tories know that they have been damaged by the row, if only by implication and innuendo.

Only the Liberal Democrats now seem to want to keep the controversy brewing - presumably because they see it as a way of hitting the Tories in the election campaign.

But now the whole issue of racism has been raised it may prove more difficult to shut it down.

There are already calls for the role of the CRE to be reviewed and there are growing fears in Westminster that the anti-racism pledge may be the thin end of the wedge and that any number of groups will start demanding similar pre-election promises from MPs.

See also:

23 Apr 01 | UK Politics
22 Apr 01 | UK Politics
21 Apr 01 | UK Politics
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