Inside Parliament: Insubstantive Major lets minister off with a caution: Prime Minister agrees Nadir gift 'unwise' - Heath says IRA outwitting security forces - 73 peers line up to speak on Maastricht Bill

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John Major faced the Commons yesterday for the first time since his Cabinet reshuffle and the Whitsun break, with MPs almost spoilt for choice on subjects that might inflict discomfort on the Prime Minister.

Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrats' economic spokesman, resolved this Question Time dilemma with an omnibus approach, asking: 'Is the Prime Minister already beginning to regret that his reshuffle of a couple of weeks ago was not more extensive and did not see the departure of ministers responsible for education, for shipbuilding and for undue and expensive assistance to those who give large donations to the Conservative Party? Does he not realise that the likelihood is that the next reshuffle will involve himself?'

Mr Beith was delivering a statement rather than a question and would not have expected a serious reply. Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, prominent on the front bench, would have let fly a brutal riposte. Mr Major merely said that 'the answer to the substantive part of his question is No', leaving MPs to puzzle over which of the equally insubstantive parts that might be.

The Prime Minister had dealt with school tests in a reply jeered by Opposition MPs for its apparent lack of recognition that Monday's overwhelming boycott had already put paid to the English paper. 'I do regret very much that there is difficulty in carrying these tests forward. They are very much in the interests of the children and it is very much in the interests of the testing system itself, which the headteachers support, that the tests go ahead this year.'

John Smith, the Labour leader, focused on the Asil Nadir affair. Both Michael Mates, Minister of State for Northern Ireland, and Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, raised the Serious Fraud Office investigation into the bankrupt former chairman of Polly Peck with the Attorney General.

Mr Smith asked the Prime Minister to confirm that Mr Nadir, now in Turkish northern Cyprus after jumping pounds 3.5m bail, was not a constituent of either Mr Mates or Mr Heseltine.

'Isn't it strange that a man charged with serious offences should be considered so important that ministers make personal approaches on his behalf to the Attorney General responsible for his prosecution?'

Mr Major said Mr Mates approached the Attorney General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, after an approach 18 months ago from a constituent, who was then an adviser to Mr Nadir. That was 'entirely proper. I am assured by Mr Mates that he has had no financial involvement with Mr Nadir, nor with any of his companies or with his advisers, either before he became a minister or since.'

To laughter, Mr Smith asked if it was 'appropriate behaviour for a minister to give a watch to Mr Nadir inscribed with a very supportive inscription, to put it mildly. Does the Prime Minister think that is the way he wants ministers in his administration to behave? Was it not bound to undermine the work of the Serious Fraud Office in pursuing financial crime. And is it not the case, as the country clearly understands, that this is a shabby and unseemly affair of no credit to this administration?'

Mr Major agreed that the gesture was 'unwise' and said that was the view taken by Mr Mates. 'I know he recognises that with hindsight it would have been better if he had not done it. It was a misjudgement, but it is not a hanging offence.'

The inscription on the Mates-Nadir watch, as every schoolboy must know by now, was 'Don't let the buggers get you down'. The former Guards lieutenant-colonel should perhaps have bought one for himself. After Mr Major's reprimand, he was on Commons duty for a debate on the renewal of the prevention of terrorism provisions for Northern Ireland during which Sir Edward Heath suggested the terrorists were outwitting the security forces.

The former Conservative Prime Minister called for a new approach in the Province and a dedicated, top level, anti-terrorist body. 'You can only deal with terrorism if you are cleverer than the terrorists. You have to be cleverer in intelligence, cleverer in action and cleverer politically. And to be perfectly blunt, we have failed in all three.'

The smoke made by Sir Edward's successor, Baroness Thatcher, during her attack on the Maastricht treaty hung in the air as peers continued their marathon second reading of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill.

Viscount Whitelaw, former deputy prime minister and Lady Thatcher's trusted political troubleshooter, said 'half-hearted' EC membership accompanied constantly by 'carping criticism from the sidelines' could do Britain nothing but harm.

'I believe that these opponents (of Maastricht) are taking a narrow-minded view when a broad approach is required in the major interests of world peace. Europe needs Britain and Britain needs Europe.'

The names of 73 peers appeared on the list for the second day of the debate with Lord Tebbit - every bit as opposed to the Bill as his former leader - at number 70, a late night slot. Intervening, he challenged Lord Callaghan, the former Labour Prime Minister, over the practicality of a single currency. 'A single currency, as Chancellor Kohl has explained, requires a single government.'

Lord Callaghan thought the question would not have to be answered until at least 2000. Drawing a parallel with the unstable Europe of 1914, he said: 'The imperative that impels this treaty is the over-riding necessity to preserve the peace and security of the European mainland and consquently of the British Isles.'

Lord Healey, former deputy leader of the Labour Party, likened Lady Thatcher's 'type of nationalism' to that tearing apart the former Yugoslavia. It was the greatest single danger to peace in the modern world. 'The Prime Minister's failure to confront it head on, has made the civil war in the government party a danger to Britain and to Europe as a whole.

'The Prime Minister has no policy on Europe as far as we can discover. One moment he wants Britain to be at the heart of Europe, the next moment he is boasting that he is the biggest Euro-sceptic of them all.

'If this civil war inside the governing party continues, it will poison Britain's political life, corrupt the British Government's policies in every field and destroy Britain's influence both in Europe and the world as a whole.'

Baroness Young, the former Foreign Office minister who piloted the Single European Act through the Lords, said the idea that Britain could have the benefits of the single market without accepting political changes was 'wishful thinking'.

Lord Moore of Wolvercote (Ind), former private secretary to the Queen, demanded a referendum. But Baroness Blackstone, from the Labour front bench, observed: 'If this Government launched a referendum in favour of motherhood and apple pie, it would probably lose it.'

Mr Major may feel in need of a Mates watch.