Outcry at Clarke's `nappy' blunder

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The Independent Online
Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, provoked scorn yesterday after he made his second blunder in a fortnight over the industrial prosperity of Consett, in Co Durham.

Mr Clarke followed up his earlier gaffe of praising a steelworks that was axed 15 years ago under Margaret Thatcher by hailing the performance of a nappy factory in the same town, which shut in 1991.

The second blunder came as he was commenting on product samples sent by Derwent Valley Foods, whose Phileas Fogg snack factory is one of Consett's success stories.

"They sent me a great packet of their really rather excellent crisps which I do know are made in Consett, which I think is also one of the major centres in Western Europe for disposable baby nappies as well."

The reference during a BBC Radio 5 interview to the Blue Ridge nappy factory, which opened after the steel shutdown, but which did not survive, provoked the second wave of protest in 13 days.

Hilary Armstrong, a Labour frontbencher and MP for North West Durham, said: "This just reflects what a pampered lifestyle Kenneth Clarke leads in Downing Street. His remarks are as out of touch and out of date as his policies. This just confirms what we already know. It is time he was out of office."

Neil Johnson, chief executive of Derwentside district council, said: "He is producing more publicity for what we are not doing than we could if we were to spend a fortune."

A company called AS & T, manufacturers of aerodynamic edges for airline wing-tips, occupies the old nappy factory. Mr Johnson said: "There is a lot more to Derwentside than a closed steelworks and a crisp manufacturer." The Chancellor had "got to get it right somewhere down the line".

A Treasury spokesman said: "The Chancellor was making the point that Consett has other industries besides the well-known Phileas Fogg. He said `I think' the area is a centre for producing nappies." The Chancellor said he hoped he would not receive a free gift of nappies from Consett after his interview.

Malcolm Bruce, the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, said the latest gaffe made Jeremy Hanley, the accident-prone Tory party chairman, look like a smooth operator.

Mr Hanley was yesterday defending his accusation that some Labour councils were corrupt. However, he failed to secure the wholehearted backing of his deputy, John Maples, the man who once suggested in a leaked memorandum that Conservative "yobbos" should kick Tony Blair about a bit.

After Mr Hanley had engaged in a furious spat with Frank Dobson, Labour's environment spokesman, on BBC Radio 4 , Mr Maples popped up on BBC 2 to apologise if people thought "corruption" meant Labour councillors had their hands in their till. "That is not what he [Mr Hanley] meant, because it is perfectly clear to me that most Labour councillors do not have their hands in the till," he said. "If that is how most people have misunderstood it, then I'm very sorry, because that clearly isn't true.

"But I think that the process of making decisions is very often corrupt in the sense that it is done for small minority groups or for trade unions."

At Prime Minister's questions, John Major stopped short of endorsing fully Mr Hanley's remarks.

Mr Dobson said in the radio exchanges that Mr Hanley was beneath contempt. "Everybody knows he is not up to the job."