Doughty performer stands her ground at despatch box

8 Harman keeps cool in face of Tory onslaught 8 Dorrell attacks 'double standards and hypocrisy'
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The Independent Online
Harriet Harman last night proved to her Labour colleagues that whatever they might think of her judgement in sending her son, Joseph, to a grammar school, she is a doughty Commons performer under pressure.

Opening a Labour-initiated debate on the health service - scheduled before the schooling row broke - Ms Harman managed both to stifle Tory attempts to embarrass her and to mount an effective attack on "privatisation by the back door".

"This debate is about the crisis in our National Health Service," Ms Harman began. "It is about the hundreds of patients who wait on trolleys for emergency treatment. It is about the thousands who are denied the treatment they need."

The jeers of Tory backbenchers in a House unusually well attended for an Opposition debate, suggested otherwise. Noting the packed benches opposite him, David Shaw, Conservative MP for Dover, said Labour MPs had been banned from the Commons tea room.

Later, Mr Shaw came close to be ordered out of the chamber after shouting out that Tony Blair was a "hypocrite", but finally withdrew the accusation under pressure from the deputy speaker, Michael Morris.

The Labour leader, and his deputy, John Prescott, were on the crowded Opposition front bench to support Ms Harman, while her husband, union official Jack Dromey, watched from the public gallery.

John Sykes, MP for Scarborough, was one of the first Tories to try to trip up the Labour health spokeswoman. "Isn't it a good thing there's no such thing as a grant-maintained hospital?" he asked. "Wouldn't she be in more trouble in that case?" But Ms Harman said she was surprised Mr Sykes was not rising to complain to the Health Secretary, Stephen Dorrell, about the fact that 7,546 hospital beds had been closed in his own health region.

"I believe that is what his constituents want him to be speaking up about in this House of Commons, rather than making cheap points."

She effectively passed the test with a witty riposte to Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman who, after repeated attempts to intervene were ignored, accused her of sex discrimination. "It isn't sex discrimination that makes me not respond her intervention - it's kindness," Ms Harman replied. Even Mr Prescott, whose distaste for the Harmans' schooling plans has been palpable, liked that.

Ducking the question of whether Labour would actually abolish GP fund- holding, she said the party would bring together staff, patients and communities to create a consensus on future health care. "We will transfer the pounds 1.5bn the Government wastes on bureaucracy to front-line services", and "end the unfair system where treatment is dependent on which GP is purchasing the health care, not on the clinical need of the patient".

"The Tory party in their hearts hate the NHS. The only safeguard for the NHS is the party which created the NHS - the Labour Party."

Stephen Dorrell - "the presentable face of privatisation" in Ms Harman's words - hit back with a scathing attack on the hypocrisy of those who chose selection for themselves while denying it to others.

"What I deplore is double standards - two-facedness," he said. "What we have seen this week is what happens when the irresistible force of parental obligation meets the immovable object of political correctness."

Ms Harman was right and virtually all her backbench colleagues were wrong, he said.She had shown by her actions that she endorsed the principles of a free and open society.