Tebbit rebukes Major over Tory cheating

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The Prime Minister backed down yesterday over allegations that the Government cheated in the "pairing" row as he came under attack from a former Tory party chairman over the incident.

John Major said in a television interview that the row over government whips deliberately pairing some of their MPs with more than one opposition member in order to win a crucial vote on Monday was "arcane".

But Lord Tebbit, writing in the Sun newspaper, said he believed the Government had been involved in foul play. "I call that cheating. I asked three former Tory chief whips. They all called it cheating. I could not find any senior Tory, except ministers, who thought that it was a proper way to behave. Most of them, too, called it cheating." Lord Tebbit reminded his readers that the last time an MP was accused of cheating on a pairing arrangement was 20 years ago. Michael Heseltine {now deputy prime minister] was so incensed that he lost control and swung the parliamentary mace around his head.

Mr Major, whose party had compounded its problems by falsely accusing Labour of cheating on Tuesday in order to defeat the Government on its Stalking Bill, said there seemed to have been some mistake.

Even without that, the Government would have won Monday's fisheries vote, he added. "Pairing arrangements generally are personal arrangements, though sometimes they're conducted on a different level. Quite what misunderstandings occurred here, I don't know."

Mr Major agreed that it would matter if the public felt politicians had behaved dishonourably, but did not believe that had happened.

Donald Dewar, Labour's chief whip, responded: "When he was questioned today about his party's cheating, John Major was both evasive and defensive. It is time for a full and public apology from Michael Heseltine and Brian Mahwhinney [the Tory chairman], who are still pathetically trying to defend the indefensible."

Labour was claiming a victory in the pairing war last night. Accusations that it, too had cheated by allowing 15 MPs to vote on Tuesday when they had promised not to do so had proved to be false in 13 of the cases. The other two MPs apologised for voting without thinking what they were doing. "It was like Pavlov's dogs. I just heard the bells," one said.