Inside Parliament: Turbo-charged Heseltine plays it for laughs point

Deputy Prime Minister stands in for Major Prescott attacks waste of public money t Army undermanning admitted
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The Independent Online
Last week was the warm-up. Yesterday was the real thing - Michael Heseltine's second appearance at the despatch box as Deputy Prime Minister, standing in for an absent John Major, but the first on which he clashed with his Labour counterpart, John Prescott.

While Mr Prescott got the slightly bigger cheer as he took his seat, Tory MPs lapped up 15 minutes of turbo-charged Heseltine in the sort of performance designed to avoid the bothersome business of properly answering the questions.

Opening the sparring, Mr Prescott extended the conventional welcome to Mr Heseltine on his first Prime Minister's Questions. "It has been a long time, but you have finally made it." That got the Government front bench laughing along with Labour MPs. In a later slip of the tongue Betty Boothroyd, the Commons Speaker, even managed to address him as Prime Minister as the hot air rose.

But Mr Prescott was pursuing a serious point, the public money wasted on the poll tax and the new NHS bureaucracy, and the cost of creating and running the Deputy Prime Minister's new empire. Mr Heseltine never did answer the question as he launched into a reference to the appointment of Peter Mandelson, MP for Hartlepool, to the deputy leader's team. "The Prime Minister has trusted me to come alone. You have had a minder appointed to look after you," he mocked.

Supplying the answer himself, Mr Prescott said: "On the Government's own figures, pounds 14bn was wasted on the poll tax, pounds 1bn was wasted on the new bureaucracy in the health service, and the Government's press and publicity machine cost the taxpayer pounds 1m every working day."

To be fair to Mr Heseltine, there was genuine hilarity at some of the asides, however predictable. If the BBC went on showing the Opposition in the light they did in last week's debate on the prison service it would not be Alastair Campbell [Tony Blair's press secretary] who brought up a complaint but the League Against Cruel Sports, was one such.

But the fact that the knockabout reached such excitable levels did not help in the matter of answering questions. Amid the hubbub Margaret Hodge, Labour MP for Barking, was trying to ask Mr Heseltine about the pounds 80,000 computerised desktop diary he had installed in his office, as revealed by the Independent, at public expense. "I have spent no money on a desk," thundered the Deputy Prime Minister as some MPs pondered the likely provenance of such a purchase.

It is little wonder that so many Tory MPs left the chamber hoping that the Prime Minister would soon be back, Mr Prescott later wrote to his opposite number.

MPs wanting straight answers to straight requests need have done no more than look in at defence questions where ministers frankly admitted that the armed forces were undermanned and needed to be supplemented with 400 Gurkhas earmarked for redundancy and that attempts to sell redundant MoD housing had been a failure; or perhaps the House of Lords, where education and employment minister Lord Henley declared that the actual number of unemployed people managing to secure Training for Work was "not important".

John Reid, a Labour defence spokesman, told Nicholas Soames, the minister for the armed forces, that the Ministry of Defence had "some explaining to do" on its redundancy programme.

According to defence sources, the recruitment gap could be up to 4,000 soldiers. Dr Reid said that the MoD had spent pounds 500m on making more than 40,000 soldiers redundant, "and now tells us that, because we're short of soldiers, we have to spend pounds 100m recruiting them".

Tackling a yet further tricky issue, James Arbuthnot, the defence procurement minister, was leaving his options open as he insisted that the Government was "obliged" to consider leasing Armerican F-16 aircraft as a cheaper option than upgrading RAF Tornados, as recommended by David Hart, the controversial confidant, for want of more precise description, of Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Defence, and Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary.