Bloomers, blunders, clangers and gaffes

The foot-in-it guide to the Cabinet

THIS Government, returned to power three years ago today, can lay claim to being the most blunder-prone in recent times.

On the individual level, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, seems to have committed the most gaffes since the last election. In February 1994, for example, he suggested that children from broken homes were more likely to become criminals - at a London conference where the Princess Royal criticised those who "scapegoated particular families''.

Later last year he came under fire for going on holiday to Italy rather than attending a crucial Cabinet meeting two days after Arab bombers mounted a terrorist attack in London.

His proposed amendments to the criminal justice system have angered judges, the police and prison workers and he has suffered a series of reverses in the courts and the House of Lords.

His refusal to accept any responsibility for the escape of IRA prisoners from Whitemoor jail last year led to furious demands for his resignation when three dangerous criminals escaped from Parkhurst.

Only last week the law lords threw out controversial changes to the criminal injuries compensation scheme.

Close behind Howard comes party chairman Jeremy Hanley who, since his appointment last autumn, has enraged Scottish voters by confusing devolution with independence, trivialised crowd violence at a world title boxing match as "just exuberance'', and then questioned his own competence when asked about it. He warned the Chancellor that voters would not tolerate further interest rate rises and claimed the Government had beaten inflation only 24 hours before interest rates were increased to ward off higher prices.

In December, before a by-election in Dudley, Hanley described the prospect of a Tory victory as "idle speculation", and last month he said that "Labour local government tends to be corrupt''.

Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, has suffered a recent flurry of gaffes. He had enjoyed a trouble-free period since an error in March 1994 when he sparked leadership speculation by declaring John Major would survive only "to the autumn''.

But last month he slipped up twice, first praising a steelworks in Consett, Co Durham, that had closed in 1985 and then commending a nappy factory, in the same town, which shut down in 1991. He also shocked cabinet colleagues by suggesting the "feel-good factor'' might not appear for at least two years.

Jonathan Aitken, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, last September began a series of blunders when he suggested that benefit claimants might be forced to move to smaller houses, as people must not become "too comfortable with benefits''.

Last October he admitted that part of his hotel bill for a stay at the Paris Ritz in September 1993 was settled by an Arab business friend, Said Mohammed Ayas. He repaid the money - five months later. And last month he denied knowledge of a sanctions-busting arms deal by British Manufacture and Research Company - BMARC - of which he was a non-executive director from 1988 to 1990.

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