Inside Parliament: Attacks from all sides put Major on the defensive: Churchill deplores Army redundancies - Ashdown chastised for Bosnia 'carping'

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Indy Politics
The Prime Minister returned to the bear pit of Commons Question Time yesterday after his visit to the United States with MPs spoilt for choice over which thorny subject to press on him.

Since John Major last faced the House, his trade secretary, Michael Heseltine, has fingered the Attorney General as scapegoat in the arms for Iraq inquiry, Douglas Hurd has done much the same for ex-defence secretary Lord Younger over the Pergau dam, Malaysia has barred new contracts with Britain, and Nato jets have fired in anger over Bosnia for the first time in the organisation's history.

All but the Pergau affair was thrown at him. Baroness Chalker, Minister of State for Overseas Development, was giving evidence on that to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee - denying any formal link between aid and arms sales.

On Bosnia, Winston Churchill, Conservative MP for Davyhulme, linked the call by UN commander Lt-Gen Sir Michael Rose and British service chiefs for the despatch of more troops with cut-backs in the Army.

Last week's 'sacking' of 7,000 British soldiers was 'deeply regrettable and mistaken' bearing in mind that Lt-Gen Rose had three times asked for more troops, Mr Churchill said. 'Can the Prime Minister now give a positive response to that request from a British general in the field?'

Mr Major pointed out that the redundancies were set out some time ago as part of the Options for Change defence review. Britain had a significant contingent already in Bosnia doing a magnificent job.

'If a request is made to the UK, we would, of course, consider providing more forces proportionately as part of a wider international effort.'

Was that a hint of more troops? Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats and a hawk on Bosnia, thought not. 'May we take it from that answer that our prime minister and our government really are prepared to let go to waste the peace that has been obtained by General Rose in Sarajevo in the last two weeks rather than this country backing a request made by a British general for more troops to ensure that peace succeeds?'

Mr Ashdown was 'yet again mistaken' about the situation, the Prime Minister said. It was the British government who moved troops into Sarajevo to make sure the peace negotiated by Lt-Gen Rose and the corralling of weapons was properly monitored. 'For once he might have the grace to acknowledge what we have done, rather than carp, criticise, and do so inaccurately.'

No to more troops would certainly have the support of Nicholas Budgen, Tory MP for Wolverhampton SW, who warned against sliding into 'a British Vietnam'.

Arms for Iraq and the Scott inquiry were raised by Tony Wright, Labour MP for Cannock and Burntwood, who noted Mr Major's emphasis on the importance of personal responsibility and asked if he welcomed the statement by Chancellor Kenneth Clarke that he would resign if criticised by Lord Justice Scott's report. 'Will the Prime Minister give an equally clear statement and will he expect the same of other ministers?'

But Mr Major gave his stock reply. Having set up the inquiry and given it wide terms of reference, he would make no comment until the judge reported.

John Smith, the Labour leader, pressed the Prime Minister over 'excessive' pay awards to top executives in a series of angry exchanges. Mr Major stuck by a view he said he had made clear when Chief Secretary to the Treasury (1987-89). 'I do not believe that excessive salary increases are right.'

But with Labour fuming over a reported pounds 3m pay-off for John Cahill, departing chairman of British Aerospace, and other boardroom millionaires, Mr Major repeated that directors' pay rises were a matter for the companies concerned, not him.

Mr Smith said top executives did not take 'a blind bit of notice' of the Prime Minister's views. 'They carry on regardless, relentlessly increasing their pay and their perks.' At the same time, pay restraint and massive tax increases were imposed on millions of people.

Mr Major told him: 'This happens to be a free capitalist country in which companies determine their wages.' He took it that Mr Smith would interfere in the pay of employees and managers. 'If that is so, it blows out of the water any of Labour's modernising ideas of understanding free enterprise.'

Earlier, during Treasury Questions, Kenneth Clarke had repeated his own call for top pay restraint. Shadow chancellor Gordon Brown had asked why the Government was imposing VAT on fuel when it should be ending 'the tax privileges that are central to some of the worst boardroom salary abuses in the country.

'If the Chancellor really wants to act over the unacceptable face of capitalism, will he condemn John Cahill's tax-free handout? Will he condemn (Cable and Wireless chairman) Lord Young's pounds 370,000 salary rise in one year, and will he now fully tax executive share options which could raise pounds 200m for vital public services?'

Mr Clarke said he frequently urged restraint on industry leaders in order to maintain competitiveness and low inflation. 'Individuals get cited who are wholly untypical of British management, most of whom have exercised such constraint.'

Faced with expulsion from the Commons, Dale Campbell- Savours spared Speaker Betty Boothroyd the pain or pleasure of 'naming' him and walked from the chamber. During exchanges on next week's business, the Labour MP for Workington had repeated his call for Tory Alan Duncan to repay the pounds 50,000 he had made by helping a neighbour buy a Westminster council house under the right to buy law.

Mr Campbell-Savours has been hounding the Rutland and Melton MP for weeks, but Miss Boothroyd objected to his phrasing that Mr Duncan had 'ripped off' the ratepayers of Westminster.

The unrepentant Mr Campbell- Savours is free to return to the Commons today and may not be all that grief-stricken at having to miss the annual debate on Welsh affairs.

About 12 Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs stalked out of the debate in protest at accusations by Rod Richards, Tory MP for Clwyd NW, of 'sleaze and corruption' on Welsh councils. Deputy Speaker Dame Janet Fookes warned Mr Richards to show 'restraint'. But just as in some boardrooms, the word is hardly recognised.

(Photograph omitted)

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