Trade minister takes easy runs off over-smart Tory bowling

The Sketch

IF MARGARET Beckett, President of the Board of Trade, was feeling nervous as she contemplated what to wear before her difficult day yesterday, she could be forgiven for having a celebratory drink after her statement on the minimum wage.

The pundits had written her off earlier in the week after her supposed row in cabinet with the Chancellor, Gordon Brown.

Looking ice-cool in a well-tailored Thatcher-like beige dress and matching jacket, her years of political experience showed that rumours of her forthcoming demise were premature.

Her statement announcing the Government's response to the Low Pay Commission had been well trailed and contained few surprises. She was "supported"by Gordon Brown, sitting next to her muttering and prompting occasionally.

For the Labour backbenchers, who were as nervous as Mrs Beckett, the subject of the greatest controversy was the lower hourly rate of pay for 18- to 21-year-olds

But she handled two potential troublemakers, Lynne Jones (Lab, Birmingham Selly Oak) and John McAllion (Lab, Dundee East) with courtesy, firmness and aplomb. There will be a rebellion of sorts but it may not be life- threatening for her.

Those who had reservations, such as David Winnick (Lab, Walsall North) and Chris Mullin (Lab, Sunderland South), simply turned the attack on to the Tories. Down with the rich! Up with the poor! Mr Winnick said it was "sickening" that Tory MPs were in favour of "starvation wages".

Mrs Beckett rightly fears the fast bowling of John Redwood, the Tory trade and industry spokesman, and he certainly draws blood from the DTI. He described the minimum wage as "fool's gold". He likened the tension between the Chancellor and Mrs Beckett to a mods and rockers' government. "The mods believe you can do it all with soundbites ... the rockers, led by the Chancellor, spend their time trying to break up the manifesto promises."

Mr Redwood is undoubtedly a hard-working performer and if Mrs Beckett is moved to another department he will have played his part along. His main problem is his Tory backbenchers who gave Mrs Beckett very easy runs off bowling too clever by half.

Philip Hammond (Con, Runneymede and Weybridge) asked Mrs Beckett whether she felt humbled at the alleged watering down of the manifesto commitment. "I am always humble but I also feel pride," she replied. Tony Baldry (Con, Banbury) fared no better when he said that the policy would cost jobs. "If he were to give up one of his six jobs' this might help," she said.

Whatever the arguments about this issue, the Tories will be haunted at every future Commons exchange with one simple question: Will they abolish the minimum wage? Mr Redwood should be telling the Tory leader William Hague and the backbenchers what the line is going to be as quickly as he can.

The warm-up act for Mrs Beckett was performed by her admirable junior minister, Ian McCartney, who not only has a welcome sense of humour but is also on top of the job.

A Tory backbencher, Ian Bruce (Con, Dorset South) asked Mr McCartney if he planned to resign for not fulfilling promises on the minimum wage. Mr McCartney had just told the Commons of his pride at the Government's aim to make work pay. Mr Bruce accused him of ranting. Yes he does, but the House loves it and in any exchange Mr McCartney, who may be vertically challenged, will always knock out Mr Bruce.

Mr Bruce demanded Mr McCartney's resignation and wanted the House to "look us in the eye over this matter". Mr McCartney retorted: "I will stand on a box anytime and look you in the eye," to laughter from all sides.

Dave Watts (Lab, St Helens North) addressed him as a privy counsellor. Mr McCartney, to cheers, said: "I have not yet been made a right honourable but I will pass the suggestion on to the Prime Minister. That was a joke." Don't joke, Ian, it may happen sooner than you think.

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