INSIDE PARLIAMENT: Eloquent rebuke cools inelegant language

New insults added to House lexicon Stewart makes his backbench debut
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Indy Politics
The day after the Prime Minister had added "dimwit" to the list of parliamentary insults, the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, judged it time to warn MPs to watch their language.

John Major's peculiarly dated insult, directed at a persistent Tony Blair during exchanges on a European single currency on Tuesday, was followed by further offences yesterday.

Nigel Griffiths, a Labour spokesman, experimented with the prime ministerial mode during industry questions, calling an Under-Secretary, Charles Wardle, a "nitwit" over British Gas services for the disabled.

And during a debate on traffic pollution, Tony Banks, Labour MP for Newham NW, demonstrated his eloquence, telling Steven Norris: "We know you are the most proficient bullshitter that the Government has got, but this time we want action."

Without naming names, Miss Boothroyd made plain she was not amused. "There are some Honourable and Right Honourable members who seem to think it is rather smart or clever to manipulate the English language in making references to other members across thefloor of this House." In a short statement she repeated the ground rule: "Good temper and moderation are the characteristics of parliamentary language.

"I do hope that in future interventions, all members will bear that in mind and we shall make use of the richness of the English language to select elegant phrases that express their meaning without causing offence to others.

"I have to tell this House that I know only too well from my postbag that some of the exchanges across the floor of this House do not enhance it in the eyes of our electorate."

Mr Major has called his opponents worse things than "dimwit". On 30 November 1993, he described the late John Smith as "odious" - and later apologised by note.

John Spellar, Labour MP Warley West, also embarked on a clean-up act, introducing his private member's Bill to regulate the funding of political parties. In the unlikely event of the measure becoming law, it would forbid donations from overseas and require parties to disclose the source of gifts of more than £1,000, and publish accounts.

Pleased with his timing, Mr Spellar pointed out that the Bill came as the Conservative Party was facing a crisis, making redundancies at Central Office as its membership and local- council base collapsed.

"It is now a narrow oligarchy clinging on to central state power, propped up by a few heavy-spending companies, mainly from the City and foreign interests," he said. Had the Bill been law the Tories might have had "second thoughts" about accepting £400,000 from the fugitive businessman Asil Nadir, "and think of all the embarrassment that would have saved them".

Little embarrassment was shown by Allan Stewart as he made his first appearance on the back benches after his resignation following an altercation with motorway protesters during which he seized a pickaxe.

Less than 24 hours after stepping down, Mr Stewart, MP for Eastwood, was at the Scottish Grand Committee watching his successor as Under- Secretary, George Kynoch, take questions from MPs.

The meeting, in a Commons committee room, made minor history by featuring questions to ministers for the first time. The four Tory backbenchers and four ministers present were heavily outnumbered by Opposition MPs.

With only Scottish MPs allowed to sit on the committee, the occasionally raucous meeting was at least free of complaints that English Tories were squeezing out the natives, a regular gripe during Scottish Questions in the chamber.

Mr Kynoch rose to a cry of "Bring back Allan Stewart" which had everyone, including the former minister, laughing. Mr Stewart wished him every success while Mr Kynoch politely regretted the circumstances of his promotion.

In one of several allusions to the departee, John Home Robertson, Labour MP for East Lothian, said the incompetence of the long-serving Under-Secretary, Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, had "done more harm to Scotland than can be done with a single pickaxe, and he should resign".

Lord James offered a thin ray of hope to those trying to save the Euston-Fort William sleeper and Motorail services. Roger Salmon, the franchising director, has said he will not include the services in the minimum requirements for the private operators of ScotRail. On Monday, Brian Mawhinney, Secretary of State for Transport, drove in another nail, saying the taxpayer subsidy per sleeper berth to Fort William was £180, rising to £540 with rail access charges. But facing protests at the impact on tourism, Lord James stressed no decision had been taken. "Scottish Secretary Ian Lang is absolutely entitled to use his influence on behalf of Scottish interests in this matter and he will do that. We recognise that these services are important to the communities they serve and, ideally, we would not wish to see them disappear."

Welsh anger was vented on the Secretary of State, John Redwood, as he opened a debate on the £2.8bn spending limit set for local government in the Principality for 1995-96. Ron Davies, the shadow Welsh secretary, said hundreds of school governors were in"open rebellion" over cutting services they were in public life to protect. But Mr Redwood said the settlement and millions held in school balances actually meant more teachers could be recruited.