Labour backs away from Clifford scandals

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The Independent Online
Labour sought to distance itself from Max Clifford yesterday as the subject of the latest scandal handled by the publicist served a writ on the newspaper that carried the story.

Solicitors for Jerry Hayes, the Conservative MP for Harlow who was accused of a gay relationship with 18-year-old Paul Stone, said they were taking action against the News of the World. The move came hours after Labour's deputy leader, John Prescott, backed away from his earlier claims that the stories were the inevitable results of the Tories' new push for family values.

At a press conference yesterday Mr Prescott said the party did not approve of the sort of "threats of scandals" promised by Mr Clifford, who is acting for Mr Stone. Mr Clifford has said he will deliver two or more such stories before the election in an attempt to destroy the government.

Mr Prescott added that Labour had never sought to exploit sexual scandals of this sort, and had not done so when the Conservatives' "Back to Basics" campaign flushed out a number of revelations about their MPs.

"We didn't exploit that and we have no intention of doing so now. We will just get on with putting Labour's alternative policies," he said at a press conference to launch the opposition party's poster campaign. Mr Prescott unveiled a picture of John Major and the slogan: "Why trust him on the election after 22 tax rises?"

The Tories' own launch on Monday was overshadowed by Mr Hayes' troubles and by a backbencher's decision to work with opposition parties on constitutional reform.

Today Labour will hold its own presidential-style press conference to follow Mr Major's, held yesterday. Mr Prescott promised that Tony Blair would use the occasion to give a positive message. The Labour leader would spell out a programme including plans to make education the top priority, and to repair damage to the health service, he said.

Labour's treasury spokesman, Alastair Darling, said Labour would spell out before the general election any changes it proposed to make to the taxation system. The party is expected to announce within the next few weeks whether it plans to raise the higher rate of taxation to 50 per cent.

In response, Brian Mawhinney, the Conservative Party chairman, repeated a claim that Labour had made spending commitments worth pounds 30bn and attacked its plans to introduce a minimum wage. Labour was "desperate to present themselves as all things to all men, they are forced to conceal the specific details of how their policies would work," he said.

The News of the World said last night that it stood by the story it published on Sunday about Mr Hayes and Mr Stone.