Politics: Blair rounds on `useless, pathetic' Hague over sleaze

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair went on to the offensive over Tory attacks on Labour "sleaze" yesterday, impugning the competence of William Hague and defending Robin Cook. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, reports on the day the fight turned nasty.

The Conservatives had no strategy, no clear critique of government policy and "no leader worth the name", the Prime Minister's spokesman said last night.

Pouring fuel on the fire of a Commons counter-attack delivered by the Prime Minister against Mr Hague, the No 10 spokesman said the Tory leader had yet to learn the difference between what was in the newspapers and what was important; and no recent Labour leader would have stooped so low as to ask a Commons question about the breakdown of the marriage of Lord Hurd, the former Conservative Foreign Secretary.

He also suggested that The Mirror had "bunged a few bob" to a friend of Mr Cook's sacked Foreign Office diary secretary, Anne Bullen. Her assertion that that the Foreign Secretary had kept Diana, Princess of Wales, waiting for 20 minutes before briefing her on anti-personnel landmines in June, and had snubbed the Queen during her visit to India last October, should have been tested, he said.

Showing a steely determination to stand by colleagues whom he believes have done no wrong - and defying a press pack gunning for the beleaguered Foreign Secretary - the Prime Minister could not have been more aggressive in the exchanges with Mr Hague.

Outside the Chamber, Mr Blair's spokesman was taking on the media - challenging "baseless" reports that MI5 had blocked an attempt by Mr Cook to replace Miss Bullen with his new partner and constituency secretary, Gaynor Regan; that Miss Bullen had been mistreated; and attacking reporters for having an agenda of trivia.

Buckingham Palace repudiated a report that Mr Cook had abandoned the Queen during her visit to India last October.

In the House of Commons, after a series of unusually curt replies to Mr Hague's questions about ministerial conduct, the Opposition leader asked Mr Blair: "Isn't it time ... so that the Foreign Secretary does not have to use international press conferences to mount a public attack on one of his own office staff, for him to come to the House and give a full statement to clear the matter up?"

"No, is the answer to that," the Prime Minister said. "The very fact that you engage in that type of question shows how completely useless and pathetic the Conservative Opposition is." The Tories were trying to suggest that the Government was afflicted with the same "sleaze and scandal that enveloped the last Conservative government", but there was a difference. "Let me tell you what people objected to. They objected to cash-for-questions by Conservative MPs. They objected to money in brown envelopes for Conservatives who became ministers. They objected to money coming from Chinese drug dealers ...

"In the questions that you have asked since you became Leader of the Opposition, you haven't asked a single questions on schools, health or crime. You are Leader of the Opposition and today we have seen why you will stay so."

Mr Blair said the Government was spending less on entertainment, accommodation and travel than the last administration and admonished Sir Peter Emery, a senior Tory, for asking if there was not a conflict between policies for the family "and the private actions of your ministers at the Department for Foreign Affairs".

Mr Blair said that Conservative ministers' marriages had broken up, and they had remarried. "It will happen in our society today. The idea that the Conservatives should seek to exploit that is typical of them but it is beneath you." He added: "Let me just nail another part of the lie that I used to go on about the private lives of Conservative ministers - rubbish."

Later, Mr Blair's spokesman said that in the last year of Tory government, pounds 8m was spent on overseas ministerial visits, compared with pounds 5.2m in the first eight months or so of Labour; Tory spending on official residences averaged pounds 1.2m a year over the last five years, compared with pounds 1.1m forecast for Labour's first year; and hospitality averaged pounds 2m a year, compared with pounds 1m since 1 May.

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