For he's a jolly good fellow

Heseltine is unequivocal: his relationship with Aitken is 'as good as ever' Inside Parliament
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Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, yesterday offered the Commons a masterfully ambiguous assessment of his relationship with Jonathan Aitken, in the wake of the disclosure that a company linked to the Treasury Chief Secretary could well have exported arms destined for Iran.

Though it was the turn of Mr Heseltine and his DTI ministers to answer questions, the list offered MPs little scope to pursue the affair.

In an extraordinary statement on Tuesday, Mr Heseltine admitted that the Government had been warned by intelligence in 1988 that naval cannons made by BMARC, a company of which Mr Aitken was a non-executive director, could be bound for Iran via Singapore.

Jack Cunningham, Labour's trade and industry spokesman, eventually managed to raise the issue during a question on public expenditure - Mr Aitken's special preserve.

The inquiry by the Trade and Industry Select Committee, encouraged by Mr Heseltine, would "implicate the Chief Secretary in the shambles and fiasco over BMARC", Mr Cunningham said. "How can Mr Heseltine maintain a sensible working relationship with his colleague in this situation?"

The president rebuked his shadow, saying he "deeply regretted" Mr Cunningham's intervention. There were no grounds for what he had said. "My relationship with my Right Honourable Friend [Mr Aitken] is as good now, and as excellent, as it has always been," Mr Heseltine said, drawing Labour laughter.

With Mr Aitken well to the right in the Tory party and a Euro-sceptic, the two have never been political soulmates.

A tiny step to dragging Britain's employer organisations into what he called the "post-corporatist partnership society" was made by Denis MacShane, Labour MP for Rotherham, with a Bill to set up a Royal Commission to assess their future.

Though lack of parliamentary time means the Bill is doomed, introducing it gave Mr MacShane 10 minutes to argue for reforming bodies like the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors, the Engineering Employers' Federation and chambers of commerce, into a more united and representative network.

He said there were about 230 employers' federations or associations - more than three times the number of trade unions. They disagreed with each other and "compared with trade unions they are secretive; their directors come from we know not where".

Mr MacShane described the IoD as the "extreme end of the industrial wing of the Tory party", while the CBI was a much more solid organisation. "It dispenses chardonnay and chips ... but it has failed to keep an equidistance between the different social and political forces in the nation."

MPs went on to approve an order redrawing the map of parliamentary constituencies in England, creating five new seats for the next general election. With two more seats already approved for Wales and one more expected for Northern Ireland, the number of MPs will increase from 651 to 659 - too many, according to some who took part in last night's debate.

Jack Straw, Labour's home affairs spokesman, hoped a review of the Boundary Commission ground rules planned by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, would look at the "upward drift" in the size of the Commons. His colleague Clive Soley, MP for Hammersmith, said the number of MPs should be reduced to 450.

Under fire from Tories John Marshall and Hartley Booth, whose north London seats will be merged, Mr Howard indicated that numerical equality would have meant an increase of 20 seats, but the Commission was limited by the rule that the number of English constituencies should not be "substantially greater" than 507. Unfortunately the term was not defined.

Mr Straw dismissed suggestions that Labour was "entirely sanguine" about the report because they believed they had gained some advantage. "The best estimates of the effects of these reports still are that the Conservative Party is likely to gain more seats." Ten more, said Dame Angela Rumbold, a Tory party deputy chairman, who monitored the commission's work.

Conservative David Amess protested that the Commission had "raped the town of Basildon", which he represents, and created an extra seat in Essex. "I thought the whole world knew there was a place called Basildon, but apparently the Boundary Commission have never heard of it."

His colleague John Carlisle, MP for Luton North, highlighted the "disgraceful" attendance for the debate - no more than a dozen MPs heard him - and observed: "I am much in favour of a smaller number of MPs ... and if that means that I go out then so be it. I have had 16 years here that I have thoroughly enjoyed."