This hurts us more than it hurts you

Minister backs use of the cane and Tories learn painful truth:
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The Prime Minister yesterday combined with the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard, to deliver the latest in a series of self-inflicted wounds on their own Government. Within three hours of Mrs Shephard endorsing a suggestion that caning might be reintroduced in schools, John Major ordered officials to issue a humiliating repudiation.

The instant U-turn adds to the disarray that has marked all government activity since the Commons returned from its summer break this month.

Taunting Mr Major on his accident-prone record, Labour MP Jane Kennedy congratulated him on the action he had taken against Mrs Shephard, welcoming "the smack of firm leadership".

But it was the Labour leader, Tony Blair, who chronicled the full litany of U-turns.

"In fewer than seven days since Parliament came back," he said, "the Government has been forced to make U-turns on stalkers, and paedophiles; forced to change their line on combat knives; utterly sunk in confusion on the farming industry.

"And then, this morning, we had the extraordinary spectacle of the Education Secretary popping up on the Today programme, saying she will bring back corporal punishment in schools, only to be reprimanded and contradicted in minutes by the Prime Minister...

"Are these not the symptoms of a Government that has lost the capacity to govern, and whose drift and weakness is damaging Britain?"

Mr Major denied any hint of confusion, saying "Every single word of what he has just said is a twisted distortion of the facts."

But the fact remains that, on a run of issues, government policy has been marked by indecision and volatility.

On the promised gun law, the Prime Minister and other ministers insisted throughout the summer that the Cullen report on the Dunblane massacre would be implemented.

Before the report was published earlier this month, however, Mr Major decided to respond to public concern by going much further than Lord Cullen - banning all bar .22 pistols, which will have to held securely in gun clubs. Last week was marked by two sudden turns: on stalking and the paedophile register.

Having initially argued that legislation on stalking was difficult, the Government decided to legislate using the Private Members' Bill process.

Then, in the middle of his speech on the pre-election legislative programme last Wednesday, Mr Major seized on the reiterated promise of opposition co-operation, agreeing to turn it into official government legislation.

Delivering a double whammy, the Prime Minister did the same for the register of sex offenders - having said that it would be left to the vagaries of backbench legislation, he agreed that it would be put through Parliament under Home Office sponsorship.

A similar chop-and-change pattern of government conduct applies to combat knives.

After Mr Major invited other offers of opposition co-operation, to build on stalking and the paedophile register, Mr Blair on Thursday suggested cooperation to ban combat knives - which was instantly spurned by the Prime Minister, on the grounds that a definition was "unworkable".

The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, told the Commons on Monday that senior police officers had agreed with him that a definition was impossible. Then, Home Office sources revealed that they were working on plans to ban the "promotion" of combat knives.

The ever-present problem of BSE, already the subject of repeated policy change, cropped up again on Monday.

In a formal response to a Commons agriculture committee report on the dairy industry, Douglas Hogg, Minister of Agriculture, said the Government was "not proceeding with the selective cull" which would involve the slaughter of up to a further 125,000 cattle.

He added, however, that he would "consider the matter further in the light of the developing science". That was repeated by Mr Major yesterday.

But Roger Freeman, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster the minister in charge of cull management, also said on Monday: "We intend to implement a selective cull programme, once we are in a position to do so."

Punishment debate, page 4

Leading article, page 15



Backs Cullen Report over keeping handguns at secure gun clubs

Under pressure goes much further and bans

ownership of all guns,

except .22


Decides to legislate using the Private Members' Bill process

Within hours turns it into official Government legislation


Again wants to leave it to backbencher

Likewise, turns it into official government Bill


Action said to be impossible because of problems over definition of weapon

Home Office now working on banning promotion and advertisements of combat knives


On Monday says: `The Government is not proceeding with the selective cull' - involving the slaughter of a further 125,000 cattle

Roger Freeman, minister in charge of cull management, says later same day: `We intend to implement a selective cull...'