Inside Parliament: Baghdad, Hackney come to Tories' aid

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Indy Politics
If political honours go to the deserving then George Galloway can look forward to a gong in the Birthday list for services to the Conservative Party. The Labour MP's speech in Baghdad, ostensibly saluting the strength and courage of Saddam Hussein, was seized upon by Tories like a lifeline to the drowning.

A small award too might go to Jane Brown, the Hackney headteacher who barred her primary school pupils from performing and seeing Romeo and Juliet because it was a 'blatantly heterosexual love story'. For a beleagured government, it seemed loony leftism had returned in the nick of time.

The inevitable question to the Prime Minister inviting him to condemn Mr Galloway came swiftly since Phillip Oppenheim, a right-winger with a particularly bitter line in scorn for his political opponents, was first up. 'Would the Prime Minister join with me in paying tribute to the courage of British troops who have fought so bravely for their country, particularly in Iraq?' Mr Oppenheim began, leaving no one in doubt as to what was coming next.

'And does the Prime Minister share the widespread sense of revulsion in the country at the behaviour of Mr Galloway, in going to Iraq and saluting the man responsible for perpetrating such unspeakable and appalling atrocities against his own people?' Tory MPs cheered and the member for Amber Valley went on to implicate 'others' on the Labour benches who, he said, had given succour to terrorists.

Mr Major agreed. 'I think the whole House will think the honourable gentleman was foolish in his actions. There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein has inflicted suffering on the Shi'as, on the Marsh Arabs. He is oppressing the Kurds, he is denying basic human rights, he has victimised British citizens, he is failing to comply with UN Security Council resolutions, and there is, frankly, nothing to be said for him - and nothing should be said for him by any member of this House.'

The second bout of indignation was led by Dame Jill Knight, Conservative MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, who said it was 'quite deplorable that a woman who has the post of headmistress should deny her pupils from seeing one of the greatest English plays ever written by the greatest English playwright on the grounds that it depicts heterosexual love'.

Ms Brown stopped pupils at Kingsmead primary school from performing in a local production of Romeo and Juliet and from seeing Kenneth MacMillan's ballet version at the Royal Opera House. Dame Jill omitted to mention that Hackney's education chairman had condemned 'an act of ideological idiocy' and that an emergency council meeting had been called.

She urged Mr Major to join her 'in deploring this example of political correctness', which of course he did. Dame Jill had spoken for the majority in the House and the country. 'There is no doubt on the wider question of politically correct ideology that it is widely unpopular with most parents, who want their children to be taught in schools the basics of English language, English history and all the things that will equip them for a proper adulthood.'

John Smith rose to question the Prime Minister immediately after the Galloway exchange and met a barrage of shouts of 'answer]' from Tory MPs. But the Labour leader was determined to maintain the pressure on the 'basic' of government honesty on taxation.

He asked if Mr Major agreed with the Chancellor that 'the huge tax increases to be imposed this year and next year will check economic recovery'. Mr Clarke's comment was made on Radio 4, but the Prime Minister said if Mr Smith had listened he would have heard the Chancellor say that the recovery was now strong enough not to be stopped. The economy had grown over 2 per cent in 12 months and had risen for six successive quarters. Retail sales, car production, manufacturing output and export volumes were all up. 'With low inflation and low interest rates, there is no doubt whatsoever that recovery is under way.'

Mr Smith noted that the Prime Minister had not denied Kenneth Clarke's remarks. 'As new tax codes arrive in homes . . . people are seeing the full impact of these tax increases.' Increases equivalent to 7p on income tax were bound to hit family budgets for six.

'Does the Prime Minister recall saying during the election campaign that greater taxation would kill the economy stone dead? If it was true then, why is it not true now, or is that one of the many things he finds it easy to forget he ever mentioned?'

Mr Major said that when Labour left office the top rate of tax was 83 per cent and the standard rate 33 per cent. 'Mr Smith has no economic policies whatsoever and he cannot hide behind that for ever.'

Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, adopted much the same line as she fended off a Labour attack on the lack of accountability, growth of bureaucracy and waste of resources in the NHS. Her shadow, David Blunkett, had made a 'policy-free zone' of his speech in opening the debate, she said. He 'spread scares, smears and innuendo . . . His mean-spirited attacks lack any recognition of all that has been achieved in the last three years by staff.'

But Mr Blunkett's target was not the NHS staff - at least not below management level - but Mrs Bottomley. Provoking Tory protests, he said that just before Christmas a 19-year old boy called Dominic wrote to every Cabinet member for contributions to a pounds 1m charity appeal.

'The Chancellor of the Exchequer gave a tenner. The Chief Secretary (Michael Portillo) gave a fiver. The Secretary of State for Health sent him a photograph.'