Inside Parliament: History repeats in Mates affair : Press blamed again after a resignation - Rifkind accused of betraying Scotland over Trident contract

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Indy Politics
The wisdom of the 1920s Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin was aired in the Commons yesterday for the second time this month, in an apparent attempt by one senior Tory to blame the press for John Major's propensity for losing ministers.

Minutes after the Prime Minister announced the resignation of Michael Mates to MPs at Question Time, Sir Peter Tapsell said that when Mr Baldwin was under assault from the press barons his retort was, 'that the newspapers were seeking to exercise power without responsibility, which was traditionally the role of the harlot'.

Mangling Lord Nelson, Mr Major told the MP for East Lindsey: 'I will reply in a parody of the words of another great Englishman: 'Assault? I see no assault'.' Nelson, of course, had the telescope to his blind eye.

A fortnight ago, in the aftermath of Norman Lamont's damning resignation speech, Gerald Kaufman cited Baldwin in the course of advising Mr Major to stop reading the newspapers. He gave a closer rendering of the quote - 'power with responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages' - and noted that the words were provided by Rudyard Kipling.

Mr Major announced the resignation of Mr Mates as Minister of State for Northern Ireland, in reply to Joyce Quin, Labour MP for Gateshead East. Referring to Mr Mates' letter on behalf of Asil Nadir to the Attorney General, Ms Quin asked: 'Can the Prime Minister tell us where he thinks the borderline lies between a ministerial misjudgement and a resignation offence?'

MPs were expecting an expression of support for Mr Mates, but Mr Major said: 'I reiterate today that I believe my honourable friend acted with complete propreity in raising with the Attorney General the concerns that had been put to him about Mr Nadir's case. I have no criticism of him on that account or of his performance as a Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office. My honourable friend has been to see me this afternoon. He told me he deeply regretted the embarrassment being caused to the Government by continuing speculation about his role . . . On these grounds alone, he asked me if he could stand aside from his duties. With regret I have accepted his resignation.'

The fate of Mr Mates was shared by at least 800 naval dockyard workers, the majority of them at Rosyth in Scotland. Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, unleashed a wave of anger and accusations of betrayal from his countrymen with the award of the pounds 5bn Trident refitting contract to Devonport in Plymouth.

George Foulkes, a Labour defence spokesman, told him: 'The decision is a bitter blow for the men and women of Rosyth and it is a betrayal of the promises given by previous Tory defence secretaries, as Lord Younger recently confirmed.'

Mr Foulkes later secured an emergency debate on the affair, though the Government did not appear to mind abandoning a scheduled debate on spending in Northern Ireland - it was to have been opened by Michael Mates. Devonport was chosen because its proposal for upgrading the docks and running costs undercut Rosyth's bid by pounds 64m. Mr Rifkind said 350 jobs would go at Devonport and 450 from the 3,700 employed at Rosyth. He promised the Scottish yard a programme of refitting work on surface ships, but Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish Nationalists, asked: 'Is the commitment to Rosyth today as firm as the commitment to Ravenscraig in 1987? If, as Lord Younger says, the primary issue is one of good faith, how does Mr Rifkind have the brass neck to remain in office?'

Anticipating the announcement, John Smith spoke of 'thousands' of job losses and reminded Mr Major of pledges to the Commons in 1984 and 1985 that the refit contract would go to Rosyth.

'Why does the Government not accept that both for industrial and defence reasons this country needs the capability and expertise of both dockyards and their highly skilled management and workforces?'

But Mr Major, going on the offensive after the Mates reply, recalled that in 1984 and 1985 Labour was keen to scrap Trident. 'How odd it is, people would think, that they want to scrap military hardware one day and then fight for it another day.' Mr Smith had 'a bare-faced cheek', the Prime Minister said. If the defence cuts Labour proposed had ever come in, 'we would have no yards at all, no capacity to defend ourselves, very few soldiers, hardly a navy and barely a plane'.

Michael Howard also came out fighting in his first Question Time as Home Secretary, declaring that Tony Blair, his Labour shadow, had 'no credentials at all' to appear in a law-and-order guise, and then indicating a leaning to tougher sentencing. Dame Jill Knight, Conservative MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, wanted him to deal with children who were 'persistent and dangerous criminals but often, because they are aided and abetted by social services, get off scot-free to commit crimes again'.

Her remarks echoed those of her party colleague Lady Olga Maitland, who on Wednesday introduced a Bill to enable children under 14 to be locked up without reference to social workers. Though the Bill will not be enacted, its purpose has struck a chord on the Tory back benches.

Mr Howard told MPs: 'The most important lesson that children can learn is the difference between right and wrong, and it is a lesson that cannot be learnt too soon, in their homes and their schools.'

But his moralising was quickly pounced upon by Tony Banks, Labour MP for Newham North West: 'How can ministers possibly talk about knowing the difference between right and wrong when a government minister gives a present of a watch to a crook?' Unbeknown to Mr Banks, time had already run out for Mr Mates.