Defector's entrance sweeps away `Sooty' Calls for Hezza sweep `Sooty' off his feet `Sooty' swept away by calls for Hezza

INSIDE PARLIAMENT: Labour uses questions to Heseltine to introduce ex-Tory MP Members pay tribute to former prime minister
Click to follow
There is a joke going round Whitehall about Michael Heseltine, the First Secretary of State and Deputy Prime Minister, and his Cabinet Office colleague, Roger Freeman, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The nature of the relationship has prompted onlookers to dub Mr Freeman Sooty to Mr Heseltine's Harry Corbett. Labour MPs, back from their summer holidays and their party conference, were not in the mood for the puppet yesterday during Mr Heseltine's long-awaited appearance at his first question time in his new role.

"Sooty" took the first question and Labour MPs shouted "Hezza, Hezza," as he rose for a second time. "No substitutes," they yelled as Mr Freeman insisted he was the minister responsible for deregulation.

Mr Heseltine had glanced up at the press benches with a knowing Corbett- like smile before the proceedings began and as the atmosphere of expectancy mounted. In the event, the last laugh was on Labour. Tory whips had done their best to arrange a united front on the government benches as a succession of right-wing Euro-sceptics got up to ask questions.

But a question from Peter Hain, Labour MP for Neath, finally brought Mr Heseltine to his feet after nine minutes. That was the cue for Labour whips, grouped behind the doors of the chamber, to march in the Tory defector Alan Howarth. The slick manoeuvre left Labour MPs cheering for both. Tories watched grim-faced and forgot to hiss as a smiling Mr Howarth settled down on the opposition benches between Eric Clarke and the distinctly old Labour Llin Golding.

Mr Hain demanded to know why Mr Heseltine's title on the Commons order paper had been changed from First Secretary of State in the summer to Deputy Prime Minister now. Would it be surrogate party chairman next and shouldn't his salary be partly funded by Central Office - or couldn't Central Office afford it?

Combining his question with a welcome for Mr Howarth, John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, said: "Since you took charge of deregulation and competition policy, we've seen a record number of new regulations, a record number of business failures and Britain has slipped five places in the world competitive league. Isn't it about time on your own policies that the hop-along deputy shouted `about turn'?"

Declaring the joke "pathetic", Mr Heseltine said he would have hopped a good deal better had he been abandoning his principles and policies, but still felt driven to rake up the past of the junior public service minister, John Horam, sitting a few feet away. "I think there is a better journey," Mr Heseltine loftily declared as if the direction lessened the crime. "That is the one of my honourable friend . . . who saw through the Labour Party long before their own leaders flirted with social democracy and ended up serving his country as a minister in a Conservative government."

Raising a familiar refrain, David Winnick, Labour MP for Walsall North, rose to ask whether Mr Heseltine would resign if there was no improvement in government, or was he going to have one more try at getting the job he really wanted. Mr Heseltine declared that Mr Winnick had overlooked the "cynicism of your own party conference, which saw the leadership of your party denying the record of your party for as long as I've been in active politics - a total and cynical abdication of everything that most Labour MPs believe in". To see the concept of new Labour, with Mr Howarth and Dennis Skinner, the Bolsover left winger, on the same side of the House was a "mesmerising thought".

It will go down as one of those Commons shows that never quite lived up to its advance billing.

MPs turned to paying their respects to former Tory Prime Minister Lord Home of Hirsel, who died last week, aged 92. Leading the tributes, John Major said he was "one of those people who light up politics with their integrity". For Tony Blair, the Labour leader, he was "a man of honour who stayed a man of honour ... not a man from another age, but a rarity in any age".