TORY LEADERSHIP ELECTION: Laughter lines divide sides at Question time

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The Independent Online
Invigorated by the fight for his political life or demob happy, John Major handled Commons questions yesterday with a panache that delighted Tory backbenchers - or appeared to insofar as expressions of support from that quarter can be trusted while election fever burns.

There were exceptions. Norman Lamont, the senior standard bearer for John Redwood, remained inert as MPs around him cheered each burst of unfamiliar prime ministerial wit.

Labour seemed to be in on the plot, almost feeding the candidate they hope will still be there come the general election. George Foulkes asked what word Mr Major would use to describe Cabinet ministers who, "while professing loyalty", were setting up lines in campaign offices for the second round.

The allusion was to the installation by Michael Portillo supporters of 20 telephones in a house in Lord North Street. "I have no knowledge of that," Mr Major replied to laughter. "But I can say the speed with which these matter can be done is a tribute to privatisation."

Tony Blair said that since it was now known that Mr Redwood "strongly disagreed with the whole direction of government policy", should he not have resigned from the Cabinet a long time ago.

The Labour leader misunderstood, Mr Major replied. "As I understand it, the Welsh Secretary resigned from the Cabinet because he was devastated I had resigned as leader of the Conservative Party."

As the uproar subsided, a smiling Mr Blair doubted if that was the view of all members of the Cabinet. "Does the Prime Minister recall saying that the leadership election would clear the air. Surely isn't all that has become clear are the divisions, the hatred and the anarchy that exists within his party?" Whoever led the Conservative Party now the divisions could never be reconciled, Mr Blair said.

Mr Major thought that "a cheek", as 40 per cent of the Labour Party had voted against his election as leader.

Austin Mitchell, Labour MP for Great Grimsby, dragged in another potential second round candidate, noting that Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, had said Mr Major had "consulted him about this barmy decision to hold a leadership lollipop scramble".

"Is that correct? And if it is, isn't it rather like inviting Lucretia Borgia to buy the wine at a party?" Mr Major retorted: "The fact of the matter is that I informed Mr Heseltine."

Sir Peter Tapsell, a Eurosceptic, said he was committed to Mr Major as leader, before fishing for the promise of referendum on a single currency. Mr Major said the single currency issue would first be for the Cabinet to determine. "Were the Cabinet to decide they did wish to proceed, there is a serious question to be asked about a referendum. I repeat what I have told this House before - I do not propose to rule one out."

Sir Teddy Taylor, torn between his Euroscepticism and voting for Mr Major, complained that the contest was distracting attention from the reopening of Southend Pier only three weeks after a devastating fire. Councillors of all parties had worked together "in a Battle of Britain spirit", he said.

"I enjoy the odd battle myself," Mr Major replied - an uncanny echo of Baroness Thatcher's "I am enjoying this" in her swansong at the Despatch Box.