Hint of autumn election has rumour mill buzzing

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Indy Politics
Arumour that the Government is clearing the parliamentary decks in order to go for an autumn general election was given the added stamp of a Commons airing yesterday.

With MPs either raking over the Tory leadership hooha, the beef crisis or doing a bit of council electioneering, Ann Taylor, shadow leader of the Commons, tried a different tack.

"Rumours are circulating that the Government intends to clear the decks of government business by July so as to minimise the need for a spill- over session in October and thereby prepare the ground for an autumn election," she said during questions of forthcoming Commons business.

Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, agreed that there did indeed seem to be a lot rumours about, including a suggestion the House might rise for its summer "very, very early" in July.

Normally MPs begin their holidays in the last week of July and return in mid-October for a couple of weeks finishing off legislation before the new parliamentary begins in early November.

But Mr Newton said he did not know who was putting the rumours around. "I only know it is not me and I do not want to give any credence to them."

While Tories readied themselves for a pasting in the local elections, John Major heartened his backbenchers with an acid remark about "smug" Labour politicians taking too much for granted.

Bridget Prentice, Labour MP for Lewisham East, recalled that three times on Tuesday, the Prime Minister failed to give a direct answer to questions about a deal with his deputy, Michael Heseltine. "Have you ever discussed with Mr Heseltine the possibility that you would stand aside and allow your deputy to take over if by tomorrow Conservative Party fortunes have not improved?" Mrs Prentice asked.

Mr Major bit back: "The last Labour politician who was that smug about elections is now earning his living elsewhere in Europe." The reminder of the misplaced hubris of Neil Kinnock in the 1992 election campaign hit home on the Opposition benches. The former party leader is now a European Commissioner.

The Prime Minister used his polling day Question Time for a familiar warning. "The 10 highest council taxes are all Labour and that is a message that every voter should remember," he said. "If they want to pay an extra pounds 225 on band D, then all they have to do is vote Labour and it is guaranteed.

"Southwark, Islington, Wellingborough - probably almost any Labour authority you can mention would have significantly higher council tax than the previous year and higher than a comparable Conservative authority."

Wellingborough? Did the Northamptonshire town really warrant such scorn? Frank Dobson, Labour's environment spokesman, went in search of statistics. Though Wellingborough council has 16 Labour members, it is in fact run by 15 Tories with the help of three independents, he said later.

"John Major tells a lie nearly every time he speaks. He is trying to blame Labour for what the Tories are doing in Wellingborough. It's like blaming Labour for arms to Iraq and mad cow disease. I don't think he can help himself any more."