Parliament & politics: Sketch: An Old Labour warhorse springs to Lilley's defence

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The Independent Online
A TASTE of what might have been was given to the Tory party yesterday afternoon when Peter Lilley, the new deputy leader, stood in for William Hague, whose mum wouldn't let him come out to play as he was still laid up with flu. Mr Hague, the dynamic youngest Tory leader this century - personal trainer Seb Coe, expert in judo, careful with his diet - proved that good old-fashioned heavy smoking and drinking, to excess, is the only way to get through a career in Parliament.

So how did Mr Lilley perform? Awkwardly and nervously he got through the ordeal with good preparation, raising a government defeat in the Lords by a Labour rebellion on Scottish university tuition fees.

It seems that English students who study at Scottish universities, will have to pay an extra year's tuition fees compared with students at English universities. Mr Lilley said this was unfair, but I could not quite warm to his argument.

Philosophically, Mr Blair is doing what the Tory right should have had the courage to do years ago. The Government's line is that students' eventual earning power is increased, and by paying their whack, there is more dosh in the kitty for higher education. Didn't we spend years, Peter, urging Mrs Thatcher to do the same?

Mr Lilley, who flopped at the dispatch box as shadow Chancellor, has been moved to the back room with the egg-heads. While he did not disgrace himself, it is clear that Mr Hague, if nothing else, is a better Commons performer than all his leadership rivals.

My suspicions about Mr Lilley's argument were further aroused when the old Labour left-wing warhorse Dennis Canavan (Lab, Falkirk West) came to his rescue.

"May I ask the Prime Minister an awkward question, even if it may cause embarrassment?" Mr Canavan, who has recently been barred from being a Labour candidate for the Scottish Assembly, repeated Mr Lilley's arguments in the context of the old Labour view that education, education, education, is free, free, free. He demanded a free vote. Tories went wild with ironic cheers.

This did get the Prime Minister's goat. Awkward questions? Free votes? Who is this man?

Mr Blair responded firmly: "It will be a whipped vote because it is Government policy." And although he did not say it, I could imagine his brain box ticking: "And what is more, if you rebel I will get you de-selected from Westminster as well."

The day began with one of the New Labour backbenchers performing the usual brown-nose routine. Dr George Turner (Lab, North Norfolk) wanted to know (or rather was told by the whips that the House needed to know) what the Prime Minister's reaction was to yesterday's edition of the Sun describing him as a dangerous man. The Sun is getting distinctly edgy about Mr Blair's pro-Europe single currency policy. "Was the Prime Minister shocked, amused or flattered?" asked Dr Turner.

Mr Blair said he had only seen a digest of the report, "provided by my admirable, objective, press secretary, which described how I have the potential to be a truly great prime minister".

Moving to the substance of the Prime Minister's reply, the House was told that: "The British people will decide; not the Sun." And the Government will refuse to rule the single currency out, on principle.

Deputising for Paddy Ashdown, Alan Beith (Lib Dem, Berwick-upon-Tweed) wanted to know whether future calls from Rupert Murdoch would now be refused by the No 10 switchboard. He hoped that "monopoly control in the media" would be outlawed.

The Prime Minister responded by saying that just because a newspaper expresses a view against the single currency, "we shouldn't legislate against it".

Wow! Tony! Maybe the control freaks are releasing their grip after all.

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