Minister carpeted as Tories close ranks over Thatcher

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The Independent Online

Political Editor

Alistair Burt, a social security minister, has been officially "reprimanded" by government whips for writing a letter to a newspaper attacking "breathtaking" remarks in Baroness Thatcher's controversial lecture last week.

The reprimand was confirmed yesterday as John Major prepared to reunite his party with a speech to businessmen in Birmingham on Friday designed to emphasise the broad appeal of the Conservative party and the potential impact of economic recovery on ordinary people.

The extreme sensitivity of party efforts to put the impact of Lady Thatcher's speech behind it was underlined yesterday by the rebuke for Mr Burt - and Mr Major's refusal to discuss it later in the Commons.

In a candid letter in yesterday's Times, Mr Burt, a left-of- centre minister whose departmental head is Peter Lilley, the Thatcherite Secretary of State for Social Security, pointedly criticised the former Prime Minister for suggesting that the Government's unpopularity stemmed from its failure to satisfy the middle classes.

Pressed by Tony Blair, the Labour leader, yesterday to confirm that the minister had been carpeted for writing his letter, the Prime Minister would only say: "Matters within my government are for me and not for you." Earlier, as government business managers launched a concerted effort to draw a line under the incident, Mr Major told Mr Blair: "I set out my views on that issue last week and they haven't changed."

But it was confirmed by senior party sources that the Chief Whip, Alastair Goodlad, had issued a reprimand to Mr Burt for breaking ranks with his letter. Mr Burt - apparently without consulting colleagues as ministerial protocol requires - wrote that "class has for too long been the thorn in the flesh of British life".

His letter adds: "The Labour Party was rightly rejected by the people when it seemed almost aggressively class based."

Mr Burt declares: "What I find breathtaking is the apparent exclusiveness of Lady Thatcher's Conservative horizon."

And he concludes: "There are staunch Conservatives all over the country, not least in the North, who might not describe themselves as middle class, and why should they?"

It was acknowledged unofficially in ministerial circles yesterday that Mr Burt's remarks did not noticeably conflict with Mr Major's uncompromising reassertion of "One Nation" Toryism, 24 hours after Lady Thatcher's lecture.

But Mr Major did not did directly criticise Lady Thatcher and it was pointed out that the Prime Minister's remarks were intended to be the last word.

Official guidance for ministers also requires that they seek permission before writing letters or articles on matters of general political controversy.