Inside Parliament: Kaufman tells how no news can be good news: Major is advised to stop reading papers; Smith scores own-goal in election call; Ashdown rebuffed over higher taxes

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Indy Politics
The Labour elder statesman Gerald Kaufman yesterday offered the Prime Minister the same piece of advice he had passed on to Lord Wilson of Rievaulx when he was at 10 Downing Street and to Neil Kinnock - 'Stop reading the newspapers'.

'Perhaps today would be a good day to start,' Mr Kaufman said as he opened a Commons debate on the press. The headlines were unanimously questioning John Major's ability to survive and the once ultra-loyal Sun screamed: 'Drop the lame donkey'.

Mr Kaufman, former shadow Foreign Secretary and now chairman of the all-party National Heritage Committee, said if ministers felt bruised by their treatment by the press, it was nothing new.

'If it was Aneurin Bevan who called the British press 'the most prostituted in the world', it was the Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin, using words provided for him by Rudyard Kipling, who talked about Tory press proprietors of the day 'playing at power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages'.'

Mr Kaufman recalled that when he worked as Harold Wilson's political press adviser at 10 Downing Street he had done his best to deflect the prime minister from complaining about, or to, the press. 'I didn't always succeed.' The then editor of the Daily Mirror - for which Mr Kaufman once worked - L A Lee Howard asked him to give a message to Mr Wilson. It was to stop reading the newspapers.

'I gave that message also to Neil Kinnock when he was leading my party, though he did not invariably observe it. I offer the same message to the Prime Minister.'

Mr Kaufman said: 'We enter this House voluntarily to be public figures. We dish it out and we should be ready to take it. If the choice is to be between a state-licensed press and an irresponsible, even dishonest, press, then my choice would be for the irresponsible press.'

But Mr Kaufman and his committee none the less want changes on press control, mainly in order to protect private individuals from harassment by doorstepping reporters, bugging and intrusive photography. In a unanimous report, the committee proposed a Press Commission backed by an ombudsman, a protection of privacy Bill, legal aid for defamation actions, and, for the press, greater access to information.

Norman Lamont's damning resignation speech and its aftermath put great pressure on Mr Major to recover some credibility at Question Time.

Tory MPs cheered loudly when he entered the chamber - with the notable exception of an impassive Mr Lamont on the backbenches - and their optimism was rewarded. John Smith, the Labour leader, scored something of an own-goal by demanding an election.

Endeavouring to twist the knife where Mr Lamont had left it, Mr Smith asked if the Prime Minister was not ashamed that his ex-Chancellor felt compelled to say 'that the way in which he conducted his administration is so harmful to the national interest that it does not deserve to succeed'.

Mr Major said that was a 'very selective' quotation. 'It is because we are in office and have followed the policies that we have that inflation is 1.3 per cent, interest rates are 6 per cent, that our economy is recovering and no other economy in Europe is likely to do as well this year or next year.'

Mr Smith asked: 'Doesn't the Prime Minister understand the significance of the ex-Chancellor's revelations is that they come from a close political colleague and ally who sat beside him, right at the heart of government?'

But Mr Major confidently replied: 'Mr Lamont said what he wished to say and I have no intention of adding to what he said or providing Mr Smith with an opportunity to extend it. As one of my predecessors (Harold Macmillan) might have said, 'We have a little local difficulty.' We will get over it and I am getting on with the work in hand.'

The Labour leader said Mr Major's announcement yesterday of 'business as usual' had sent apprehension throughout the land. Was he incapable of learning anything from anybody? 'Since his authority and that of his Government is now in tatters, will he not, for once, put the national interest first and let the people decide in a general election?'

Tory backbenchers howled with laughter, redoubled when Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, tried to restore order by telling them: 'This is a total waste of precious time.'

'Why will the Prime Minister not let the people decide if they want him and his wretched government?' Mr Smith asked as the noise subsided. It was a gift for Mr Major: 'I have to tell Mr Smith, he might have overlooked it, but we had an election last year. We won it, and he lost it. And I say he lost it advisedly. The score is four-nil in elections recently. In due course it will be five-nil.'

Paddy Ashdown was similarly rebuffed when he asked if Mr Major had heard the speech by John Biffen, the former Tory Cabinet minister, in the economic debate. Mr Biffen had called for a wider consensus to take the 'very tough decisions on tax and public spending' that were necessary, the Liberal Democrat leader said. Mr Ashdown sees a need for higher taxes to pay for education and tackle the pounds 50bn borrowing requirement: 'There is not just a crisis in the Conservative Party. There is a crisis in the nation and if he would put the plight of the nation before that of himself, he would discover he could probably solve both by taking that advice.'

The Prime Minister observed that Mr Ashdown was 'developing pomposity into an art form'. If he meant what he said about taking tough decisions, why, having previously supported VAT on fuel, had he voted against it in the Budget.

Just as on Wednesday, the Commons television monitor indicated that a 'personal statement' was to be made to the House and for a moment it seemed that another sacked minister was about to vent his spleen on his former chief. The realisation that it was Archie Hamilton, Minister of State for the Armed Forces until the reshuffle, who was to speak was something of an anti-climax. The old Etonian MP for Epsom and Ewell is a loyalist who told Mr Major in January that after 11 years in government he wanted to leave when changes were next made. Ministers of below Cabinet rank rarely make resignation statements. Mr Hamilton's self-deprecatory one was interpreted as a swipe at Mr Lamont, but Max Madden, Labour MP for Bradford West, more accurately summed it up as a 'parliamentary non-event, a trip down memory lane'.

MPs learnt that at the MoD, Mr Hamilton had had one of the best jobs in government - 'very little legislation, plenty of travel abroad'.

He had enraged retired army officers who had seen their corps amalgamated or their regimental bands wound up. 'Some admirals still blame me for the decision to send Wrens to sea,' he said. But as for wounding revelations, the former Coldstream Guards officer kept his bayonet firmly in its scabbard.