Inside Parliament: Minister plays down Mussolini connection: Labour MP angered by ascent of neo-fascist - - Confusion over treatment for boots and belts

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Benito Mussolini will not be participating in Italy's new government, a Foreign Office minister assured the Commons yesterday, deftly brushing aside an MP's concern that a neo-fascist who regards Il Duce as a hero almost certainly will be.

Conservatives expect the right- wing coalition under Silvio Berlusconi to be an ally in loosening the European Union. As Angela Knight, Tory MP for Erewash, forecast at Question Time, the incoming Italian administration was likely to share the party's opposition to 'the creation of a socialist superstate'.

But David Winnick, Labour MP for Walsall North, was angry at the inclusion in the coalition of the extremist National Alliance. Its leader Gianfranco Fini has described Mussolini as the greatest statesman of the century. And according to the Guardian of Wednesday the first EU envoy to meet Mr Fini after the coalition victory was Sir Patrick Fairweather, the British ambassador.

Noting that it was 50 years since the liberation of Italy from fascism, Mr Winnick said it was a matter of concern that some people involved in the new government had highly praised the war criminal Mussolini.

'Is it too much to ask the Conservative government here to make it perfectly clear that we do consider Mussolini to be a notorious mass murderer and we hold with contempt all those in Italy who consider him some sort of hero?'

It was certainly too much to expect David Heathcoat-Amory, Minister of State at the FO, to use such plain language. 'Signor Mussolini is not participating in the future government and if there were any supporters of him who do so, we would naturally take that into account in our relations with them,' he replied.

'But it is for the Italians to decide who governs them and if the new ministers are properly elected and appointed by the Italian people we will look forward to working with them.'

Answering Mrs Knight, Mr Heathcoat-Amory expected the new government to bring fresh thinking to issues facing the Union. 'We will hope to work closely with them to promote British interests, particularly in the field of budgetary discipline, subsidiarity and the promotion of free markets and free trade, and to keep the EU outward looking and diverse and to respect the nation state and prevent the creation of a socialist superstate. There is a lot of evidence that the new government and the constituent parties in the coalition share many of our attitudes.'

Most MPs were bothered not so much about the Italian elections as about today's borough and district council elections. Hence the exodus when a debate on the Army got under way, leaving just three MPs on the Labour backbenches and Menzies Campbell alone on the Liberal Democrat bench as the party's defence spokesman.

Some 25 Tory backbenchers were present for the opening speeches. But as John Reid, a Labour defence spokesman, observed: 'If I was a Conservative and given the choice of sitting in here or going out and meeting the voters, I would probably sit in here as well.'

Mr Reid repeated Labour's call for a defence review and warned of 'overstretch' in the Army. But some of the sharpest criticisms came from Tory backbenchers. Julian Brazier, MP for Canterbury and a former Territorial Army captain, said there was 'dismay' in the Army as one study followed another.

One infantry battalion last year spent 223 nights away from home without spending even a day on an emergency tour as commitments expanded and the Army continued to shrink, he protested.

The 2nd Battalion of the Princess of Wales' Royal Regiment had spent 'months and months doing buckshee tasks that have nothing to do with operational purposes or training - the longest of which is six weeks

being used as administrative extras at the Royal Tournament'.

Jeremy Hanley, Minister of State for Defence, perversely took that as notice that Mr Brazier would scrap the Royal Tournament, adding that according to the MP, soldiers 'would wish to spend the 24 months between active operations blancoing boots and painting stones white'.

Andrew Robathan, MP for Blaby and a former Coldstream Guards officer, condemned the jibe as unworthy

of a minister. Young men and women joined the services for action, he said. 'They do not relish being treated as skivvies, being made to work every hour God gave for not very much appreciation.'

An apology was certainly forthcoming, though not quite the one the two MPs might have wished. A chartered accountant rather than an old soldier, Mr Hanley conceded: 'I am sorrry if I made a mistake, we blanco belts and we polish boots.'