Inside Parliament: Lamont misses out on prime ration of unequivocal support: Smith's challenges sidestepped at Question Time - Henhouse metaphor stumps Patten - Labour MPs look on the bright side - Rebellion in Lords

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Indy Politics
John Major told the Commons yesterday that he stood 'four-square' behind his Secretary of State for Education, John Patten, but noticeably did not give Chancellor Norman Lamont the same forthright backing despite being given ample opportunity to do so.

Making his first Question Time appearance since the Conservatives' mauling in the Newbury and county council elections, the Prime Minister repeatedly sidestepped challenges from John Smith, the Labour leader, to confirm that Mr Lamont would present the November Budget.

'That is a hoary old chestnut of a question. I have not yet even begun to contemplate Cabinet changes,' Mr Major replied, to prolonged and disbelieving Opposition laughter.

Mr Patten, whose fate was similarly the subject of avid speculation among MPs, announced a raft of changes to 'streamline' the schools testing regime for 1994 but remained adamant that this year's tests for 7 and 14-year- olds should go ahead.

'Children have been working towards the tests for several years. Abandoning the tests would leave conscientious teachers, concerned parents and the wider community in the dark about our schools.' Parents and teachers would be deprived of vital information about the attainments of pupils and Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the national curriculum and assessment authorities, would be denied information about the quality of the tests themselves.

'If you pull the plant up and examine it for two or three years we will actually set back the whole process for a decade,' Mr Patten said.

His statement was less of a climbdown than Labour and the Liberal Democrats had hoped for, but the concentration on basic subjects and reduction in the workload on teachers from 1994 was uniformly welcomed.

Ann Taylor, Labour's education spokeswoman, said the statement illustrated the 'utter confusion and chaos' in Government circles over tests. 'If so many changes are to be made next year and in subsequent years, why is the Secretary of State persisting in trying to make guinea pigs of our children this year? The logic of the Secretary of State's own position must be to withdraw the compulsion on tests this year . . . His obstinate and arrogant refusal to change this year's tests is incredible. He does not enjoy the confidence of parents, of teachers, or governors, even of his own advisers. He should resign.'

Resignation would be too kind a fate in the eyes of Dennis Skinner, the Labour MP for Bolsover, for whom the Secretary of State's homilies and despatch box posing have clearly been insufferable. 'This fall from grace has been coming a long time,' he growled. 'Nobody has exuded the arrogance and contempt amongst his colleagues more than he. He's been strutting around that despatch box like a puffed-up peacock on heat. And today he's come in like a bedraggled battery hen that's laid its last egg. His intellectual elitism has overwhelmed his common sense.'

Mr Patten usually has a nasty reply for Mr Skinner, but seemed at a loss. 'I don't think that was so much a question as a statement which . . . I readily dissent from,' he replied amid the laughter.

Tory backbenchers cheered louder than usual as Mr Major entered the chamber for what was inevitably going to be a fraught Question Time. Not so long ago, party leaders were only cheered when they returned to the Commons after a triumph at the polls or, in the case of Baroness Thatcher, after a successful summit meeting. Colin Pickthall, Labour MP for West Lancashire, set the tone, thanking Mr Major and his ministers for helping Labour to vastly increase its vote in the county last Thursday. He cited VAT, school tests, unemployment and attacks on local democracy as contributing to the Tories' 'bloody nose'.

Mr Major said the MP 'clearly deserves an A-level in smugness'. He quoted a Sunday Times article as saying Conservative 'setbacks in the county elections were so severe that Labour would win the general election on the same voting breakdown'. 'That was the Sunday Times in 1985. Two years later we won the election by 100,' he said. Labour backbenchers chorused 'Always look on the bright side' as Tory backbenchers offered helpings of good cheer. Derek Conway said the Prime Minister had 'every reason to be optimistic' as the UK pulled out of recession; Gary Streeter said Plymouth estate agents could talk of nothing else but the upturn in the housing market.

'I have not myself visited estate agents as I have no intention of moving,' Mr Major told the Plymouth MP. However he seemed less certain about the tenancy of his Downing Street neighbour, Norman Lamont.

Replying to John Smith, he said: 'It is because the Chancellor has taken difficult decisions that we now have inflation at a 25-year low, interest rates at a 15-year low and the prospect of the fastest growth in Europe this year and next year. That is an excellent record that people will recognise long after Mr Smith's undignified sniping is forgotten.'

But it was not an answer to Mr Smith's question. Giving the Prime Minister 'a third shot', the Labour leader said: 'The Prime Minister seems to be having difficulty with a simple question . . . Will the present Chancellor present the Budget? If he can't say 'yes', why can't he say 'no'?'

'Why doesn't Mr Smith just admit he's got a bloody nose. It's a good deal more dignified,' the Prime Minister replied. Challenged minutes later by Michael Connarty, Labour MP for Falkirk East, on the testing of children, he appeared to go out of his way to endorse Mr Patten. 'I will tell Mr Connarty precisely where I stand - four-square with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.'

Such unswerving loyalty cannot be counted upon in the House of Lords where last night the Government suffered defeats on the innocuous-sounding Housing and Urban Development Bill. Some wealthy Tory peers believe their property interests are threatened by the measure which gives private leasehold tenants the right to buy freeholds.

About 60 stately homes were released from the change when Tory rebels carried an amendment by 114 votes to 57, and some privately-owned sheltered accommodation became exempt when the Government failed to provide tellers for another division. Some great houses in which rooms were let could be split up unless the Bill was amended, warned Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, owner of the eponymous home pile.

(Photograph omitted)