`Infallible' Clarke left red-faced

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The Independent Online
Kenneth Clarke yesterday was given a ringing endorsement by the Prime Minister as the "infallible Chancellor", which left both Tories and Labour MPs roaring for more as election fever again gripped the House of Commons.

John Major's remarks were intended to embarrass the Shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown, for his endorsement of Mr Clarke's limits on spending and tax.

But the Chancellor's face turned bright red with embarrassment at the Prime Minister's words, which echoed Baroness Thatcher's endorsement of Nigel Lawson as "unassailable" shortly before her Chancellor resigned. Mr Major also ducked Labour taunts about the rumours that the Tories could abandon the Wirral South by-election to call an early general election.

John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, said: "John Major's refusal to confirm whether the by-election will go ahead shows all the signs of a conspiracy to deny the people of Wirral South their vote on February 27."

There were continued signs that the Tories are preparing for defeat in the by-election, and Mr Major is teasing the Opposition about the election date.

Tory MPs have been asking Conservative Central Office to clear up confusion between Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, who said they would win the by-election and Michael Heseltine, the deputy Prime Minister, who said the voters would give the Government a kicking. The MPs were told that Mr Heseltine was "nearer to the message".

Although Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, will today reinforce Mr Major's attack on Labour on Europe, Tory Euro-sceptics were unimpressed with Mr Major's sally against the social chapter. One disgruntled Tory MP said: "He should not be using a speech in Brussels to carry on the election campaign at home. It will prove counter-productive."

The Shadow Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, will hit back today accusing Mr Major of "demeaning" the role of Prime Minister by his Brussels speech.

Setting out Labour's position on Europe for the election, Mr Cook will say: "The grotesque caricature to which Mr Major reduced the social chapter demeans both the level of political debate and the standing of his office."

Attacking the Euro-sceptics as the "militant tendency" of the Tory party, he will challenge Mr Major to justify his claim that half a million British jobs would be under threat from the social chapter. "There is nothing in the social chapter which threatens British competitiveness," Mr Cook will say in a lecture at the Centre for European Reform.

Mr Cook, who said at the weekend that it would be difficult to stay out of a stable European single currency in 2002, last night insisted that he was not committing Labour to entry of the single currency, if it was established on time.

"If we feel that Britain is able to benefit from the advantages of the single currency, we will go in. If it is not in a position in which it can compete on level terms within a single currency, with the monetary obligations, we will not go in."

He said Labour would make its judgement on the economic conditions, whereas the Tories were in the "grip of dogma and prejudice".

Major renews attack, page 9

Andrew Marr, page 15