Dorrell rebuked by Major in devolution row

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Indy Politics
John Major yesterday issued a humiliating rebuke to his Secretary of State for Health after a series of cabinet splits over the issue of Scottish devolution.

In a move that will be widely interpreted as the latest skirmish in the Conservative Party leadership battle, the Prime Minister publicly sacked Stephen Dorrell from an extra role on the constitution.

The Prime Minister used a press conference on education to claim that Mr Dorrell had never even held the campaigning post at all.

The Health Secretary had told a newspaper that a future Tory government would abolish a Scottish parliament set up by Labour - a claim which was then refuted by the Scottish Secretary, Michael Forsyth.

Mr Major said yesterday that it was he, and not Mr Dorrell, who was in overall charge of policy on devolution.

"Responsibility for the constitution rests with the Prime Minister and the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales," he said. "That has always been the case and it remains the case.

"As Michael Forsyth has said for a long time, if you have an omelette like that, it isn't an omelette that can be readily unscrambled."

It is not the first time that Mr Dorrell has been accused of straying from his brief in the interests of pursuing his leadership ambitions.

In January, he caused a similar furore when he suggested that Britain's relationship with the European Union should be renegotiated.

Mr Dorrell privately sought to limit the damage, which could dent his long-term ambitions for the Tory leadership, telling friends that he would still speak on constitutional issues.

He faced further embarrassment later in the House of Commons, when he announced a retreat on the NHS Primary Care Bill.

Labour's health spokesman, Chris Smith, accused him of "backtracking" twice in two days. "It is the Secretary of State's week for backtracking," he said. "He spent most of yesterday trying unsuccessfully to extricate himself from the hole that he has injudiciously planted himself in with Scottish devolution. Now he has climbed down over a central feature of the Bill."

Mr Dorrell announced, as The Independent reported yesterday, that he would table an amendment to the Bill to prevent private companies such as supermarkets hiring family doctors to open surgeries.

Yesterday's manoeuvrings indicated a new intensity of election campaigning. Two new planned policy changes suggested that the Government was anxious not to let Labour gain the initiative.

In Parliament, Mr Major indicated that he was prepared to look at the possibility of making Holocaust denial illegal, and revealed that he was planning a meeting with the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, followed Labour proposals to force disclosure of sex offences to schools and other agencies with his own proposals to let residents know when a sex offender moves into their neighbourhood.

Last night, Labour's head of election strategy, Peter Mandelson, accused the Conservatives of "jackdaw tendencies". Several Labour initiatives on education had been copied, he said, along with a commitment to flexible pensions, plans to help lone parents back to work and proposals to outlaw stalking."Bereft of their own ideas and out of touch with the public's mood, the Tories have decided to launch a wholesale raid on new Labour's policies," he said.