Major laughs off whiff of Tory unrest

Inside Parliament
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John Major yesterday brushed aside fresh reports of Tory backbench moves to depose him as "silly speculation" and "nonsense".

Laughing it off during Commons Questions was made easier for the Prime Minister by Chris Mullin, Labour MP for Sunderland South, who disingenuously offered his condolences that "the 'bastards' are plotting again".

The "bastards" was Mr Major's description, picked up on untransmitted tape, of right- wingers in his Cabinet. However reports in some of yesterday's newspapers suggested a "bloodless coup" was being considered by party "grandees".

Mr Mullin said the current difficulties of the Conservative Party were not Mr Major's fault. "He simply has the bad luck to be Prime Minister at the time when the bills are coming in for the Thatcher decade.

"If I might offer him a word of advice, it's not a leadership election he needs to offer them, it's a general election. That would shut them up."

Amid laughter from both sides, Mr Major recalled that the Sunderland MP had some experience, having run the leadership election of one of the losing candidates [Tony Benn] in an earlier Labour Party leadership election.

"So I take with some interest what he says, but perhaps I won't follow it to the letter."

Seemingly buoyed up by the whiff of unrest, the Prime Minister dealt briskly with Ian Pearson, Labour winner of the Dudley West by-election, who wondered what difference had been made by last year's leadership contest. "We have this silly speculation almost every week there is a Thursday in," Mr Major replied. "It has been nonsense in the past and its nonsense now."

Speculation that the Ministry of Defence would choose Land Rover ambulances rather than an Austrian competitor proved spot on. MPs were told 800 Land Rover ambulances were to be ordered along with 8,000 Defender XDs from the same manufacturer, replacing about half the Army's fleet of ageing utility vehicles. The orders are worth more than pounds 200m and should help sustain 500 jobs.

The announcement coincided with the Commons' annual debate on the Army during which Nicholas Soames, the Armed Forces Minister, dwelt on the "daunting task" of recruiting enough young soldiers for the fighting end. To maintain the right balance of age and experience the Army must recruit some 15,000 youngsters a year. "The truth is that fewer volunteers are coming forward than we would like," he said.

The Army is running campaigns and advertising at 1,100 job centres. According to the MoD, the Infantry, Armoured Corps and Royal Artillery are together 2,000 short.

Mr Soames, who enjoyed his days in the 11th Hussars, said the Army was still a career without parallel in variety and excitement. But better than his list of official jollies was the story of Neil Coull, of the Royal Logistic Corps, who was challenged to an impromptu boxing match by the commander of a Muslim road block in Bosnia.

Corp Coull, from Billingham in Cleveland, was on a routine mail run last July when he found a Canadian convoy halted at the road block. He insisted the British forces' mail be allowed through but the commander barred the route until he noticed a pair of boxing gloves in the back of the Land Rover. "Corp Coull, a keen amateur boxer, was promptly challenged to a winner-takes-all boxing match," Mr Soames related. "A makeshift ring was marked out by the roadside and amid much cheering, Corp Coull knocked his opponent to the ground in 30 seconds. As a result, the Queen's mail was allowed through."