`Dimwit' affair finds Major in breach of convention

At Prime Minister's questions, one is asked of Blair Shephard's words haunt her in clash over schools cash
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The Prime Minister yesterday made a virtue of his Janus-like stance on a European single currency, branding Tony Blair a "dimwit" for demanding a definitive opinion on whether he would join.

Tory backbenchers seemed delighted at the breadth of their leader's vocabulary and some waved their Order Papers in acclamation of the sure-fire soundbite. The insult marked the end of noisy exchanges which the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, allowed to run onafter John Major upset convention by asking a question of the Labour leader.

Mr Blair had sought to exploit Cabinet divisions over Europe, asking if the Prime Minister agreed with Jonathan Aitken, the sceptic Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who said he would "wait an eternity" before joining a single currency.

Mr Major said he had set out in detail the conditions for a single currency as long ago as 1990, and reaffirmed them in some detail on Friday. Additional criteria to those set out at Maastricht would have to be met before it was considered.

"Some years in advance of those being met, it is unwise either to say `yes' we will proceed or `no' we will never proceed."

Mr Blair said that on Friday the Prime Minister was "facing both ways". Conservative Central Office was briefing one message on Friday and Downing Street another on Monday.

"Perhaps if Mr Major won't slap down his Chief Secretary, he will say whether he agrees with the Chancellor, who is a supporter of monetary union and who can foresee circumstances in which Britain would join and wants it by the end of the century."

Mr Major countered with Labour's divisions. Fifty of Mr Blair's MPs defied the whip on Maastricht and 40 on the European Union (Finance) Bill. "As far as a single currency is concerned at a later stage this year, we would firstly require all the specificMaastricht criteria to be met and in addition we would require other criteria to be met - for example, relative flexibility of employment markets and a range of other issues." The Chancellor would set these out later this week, he added. Mr Blair could then "fashion his own policy".

But probing for Mr Major's view in principle on a single currency, the Labour leader asked: "If these circumstances are met, will he join?"

Working himself up for the customary final word after the third question, the Prime Minister replied: "I just told him, when and if these circumstances are met, we will look and see whether it is appropriate and in the British interest to join.

"Will Mr Blair tell us now whether he would join? Yes or no? Does he know whether it would be in the British interest?" Mr Major bawled above the growing din. "No he doesn't. All he is concerned to do is to trail along the path behind the Euro-federalists, where he feels most happy." Mr Blair rose as if to answer the question. After observing that it was "most unusual for prime ministers to ask the Opposition questions", the Speaker allowed him to go ahead. Mr Blair said: "I think it is excellent that the Prime Minister is getting into the habit of asking us questions rather than answering them himself. Until he decides where he stands on this issue as the prime minister of the day, his leadership will remain weak, his Cabinet divided and Britain effectively disabled in Europe." Mr Major retorted: "It is interesting to ask Mr Blair questions. It would be more interesting if he ever provided any answers." The conditions had been set out.

"I am not going to take a judgement that is crucial to the constitutional and economic future of this country until I see the economic circumstances of the day. Frankly, Madam Speaker, only a dimwit would ask me to."

With MPs about to debate funding for schools, Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, asked if Mr Major believed it was none of the Government's business that governors were being forced to cut school budgets and sack teachers.

"Or is the Prime Minister saying this is a price our children should be prepared to pay in order that he should have room for tax cuts at the next election?" As ever, Mr Ashdown had his facts wrong, Mr Major replied. The Audit Commission regularly identified significant scope for savings by local authorities - "not least Liberal Democrat-run local authorities". Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, made much of the estimated 1 million surplus places held by local education authorities, and£700m she estimates is held by schools in balances as she defended the 1995-96 financial settlement for LEAs.

Responding to a Labour- initiated debate, she struck a very different tone from her leaked memoradum to a Cabinet colleague, David Hunt, which warned that without another £90m to fund the coming pay recommendation for teachers, between 7,000 and 10,000 posts could go.

The Chancellor, however, has said not a penny more, and yesterday Mrs Shephard's only reference to the memo was that it was "of a certain age".

David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, wondered whether Mrs Shephard was "an unwilling pawn in a game which sees toughness as being more important than investment in our children's future". And two Conservative MPs called for "capping" to be lifted to allow councils to decide their spending in accordance with "perceived local need".

But Mrs Shephard said that despite annual predictions of threats to teachers' jobs, their numbers had remained stable at about 390,000 for the last four years. "As pupil numbers move up, as they have done over the last few years, it is possible to tighten some staffing ratios without threatening standards - as the recent improved examination results show.''

Mrs Shephard is coming to rely on a sentence sure to enrage parents and teachers in the state sector: "There is no research existing in this country which shows that marginal increases in class sizes harm standards." She has added the word "marginal" since her Minister of State, Eric Forth, first made the claim.

Labour's motion asserting that the settlement would "cause class sizes to shoot up" and "lead to the loss of thousands of teaching posts" to the detriment of standards was defeated 295-260 - despite the quotes being the words of Mrs Shephard.

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