Blair faces constant shelling from Conservative trenches

Inside Parliament
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Tony Blair can take heart from yesterday's Commons Question Time if the threat he represents to the Conservatives' hold on power is measured in the vehemence of backbench attacks upon him.

Of the five Tories ostensibly putting a question to John Major, four took a swipe at the Labour leader.

Bernard Jenkin, MP for Colchester North, at least tried to hit two targets - Mr Blair and the European Union. He wanted an assurance that the Prime Minister would be "bidding for a net retrieval of power" from Europe at next year's Inter- Governmental Conference.

"Is not our resolve in this matter increasingly a defining issue between Government and Opposition?" asked Mr Jenkin. "Our determination to secure the powers of the nation state contrasts utterly with Mr Blair, who has nothing but a soundbite and a submissive smile, and for whom the idea of the nation state is Europe."

In a cautious reply to the slightly pompous young Euro-sceptic, Mr Major made no mention of retrieving power but promised to block any attempt to extend community competence into foreign policy, defence and home affairs.

John Marshall, MP for Hendon South, was next, declaring that at 6pm on Monday night as the House was rejecting a Labour amendment [to help single mothers] that "would have cost the taxpayer pounds 250m", Mr Blair was "addressing an audience of City fat cats promising to renounce the high tax and spend policies which have characterised every Labour government since the war."

Mr Marshall was temporarily thrown by Labour delight over his dip into their lexicon for "City fat cats" but clung to this theme. "This is the fifth time Mr Blair has admitted he has been wrong - he has been wrong on the common market, wrong on defence, wrong on industrial relations reform, wrong on privatisation. Five wrongs do not make a right leader for this country."

Neville Trotter, Tory MP for Tynemouth, said Mr Blair was shortly to take the Labour roadshow to North Tyneside and wondered if the entertainment would include his views on the investigation into "corruption and organised crime in the North Tyneside Labour Party". Mr Major, however, appeared to have no brief on this.

Robert Hughes, who resigned his junior ministerial post earlier this year after admitting an affair, began the long haul back to favour by returning to Mr Blair's Monday night Mais lecture at the City University - Mr Marshall's "fat cats".

The "import" of the speech was that income taxes would rise under Labour if rates were set by an international average, Mr Hughes, MP for Harrow West, maintained. Most OECD countries had higher taxes than Britain. "Instead of saying it directly, as usual Mr Blair tries to disguise it behind words."

"It is certainly clear there was a certain lack of transparency in what the Labour leader said," Mr Major said.

Much the same could be said of his own reply to Tony Blair over the Nolan committee recommendations on standards in public life. The Prime Minister said he hoped the committee, now under discussion between the parties, would be able to deliver an interim report before the summer recess, but expressed no view on MPs' declaring their earnings.

Mr Blair said he welcomed Mr Major's assurance that the committee would "look at how, not whether, it implements the Nolan recommendations. Can I take it that includes the specific recommendation that the amount paid to consultancies will be included?"

Mr Major left the question unanswered. Recommendations affecting MPs and Commons procedures would be for the House to decide, he reiterated.

"I have said repeatedly that I favour greater transparency and I accept the broad principles of the Nolan committee. But we do need to examine how that will work and what its implications will be for Parliament.

"That needs to be done. I hope it can be done on an all-party basis. I believe that would be in the interests of the House, so that the whole country can see that the House is seeking to live up to the highest standards ..."

Mr Major had rather less to say to Tony Banks (Labour Newham NW), who offered him a chance to respond to Baroness Thatcher's latest snipe at his record. In her book, she likened her successor to an "incompetent trainspotter", Mr Banks said. "That was a disgraceful attack...would the Prime Minister take this opportunity to damn Mrs Thatcher and all her policies that have got him and his Government into the appalling mess they are in?"

No, he would not. "It is less of a surprise to hear that Mr Banks might be an admirer of mine than a shock and a disappointment," snapped Mr Major.

MPs went on to give a Second Reading to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Bill, forced on Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, after law lords ruled he had acted unlawfully by not seeking Parliament's approval before introducing a tariff-based scheme. A Labour amendment condemning the Bill for cutting cash available to compensate victims of crime was rejected by 274 votes to 229.

Jack Straw, Labour's home affairs spokesman, said there would be a cut in compensation of more than pounds 700m, or 40 per cent, over five years, but Mr Howard insisted the scheme provided the "right balance between the needs of victims and the interests of taxpayers".