Not unexpectedly, Michael Heseltine, tipped as the favourite challenger to the Prime Minister during his latest crisis of confidence, played it straight during trade and industry questions, leaving energy minister Tim Eggar to raise his voice and trade minister Richard Needham to raise a smile.
The latter came when the irrepressible David Winnick, Labour MP for Walsall North, combined a question with what could be termed a leadership inquiry. It brought a swift reprimand from Betty Boothroyd, who instructed Mr Needham to confine his reply to the first part of the question, which the minister had by then forgotten.
On the serious business, the President of the Board of Trade took the opportunity to emphasise: 'Under this Government we now have the lowest interest rates for nearly 20 years, manufacturing productivity is at an all time high . . . the lowest underlying inflation for the last 26 years and investment in plant and machinery up nearly 50 per cent since 1979.'
Mr Needham disclosed that he planned six ministerial visits to the Far East, including Malaysia, with whom trade relations were soured over the Pergau dam project. Yesterday, alongside claims that electricity companies were 'fleecing' consumers over VAT on fuel, it was publication of the preliminary pit sale prospectus that caused Labour tempers to rise. Labour's Ann Clwyd, whose Cynon Vallery constituency includes the Tower colliery - the last deep mine in South Wales, which is to be placed on 'care and maintenance' - said closures had been caused by sheer vindictiveness and incompetence by the Government and British Coal.
Mr Heseltine's message was the same as that he repeatedly gave during his own crisis over the closures. 'The reason why British Coal's pits have been closed is they could not produce a product for which there is a market at a price people were prepared to pay.'
A further issue exercising Labour MPs yesterday was the claim that Ian Byatt, head of Ofwat, the water industry watchdog, had given jobs to his friends. Helen Jackson, the Labour MP for Sheffield Hillsborough, who led questioning of Mr Byatt by the Commons environment select committee, complained of patronage and preference.
It was a bit of a cheek for a Labour MP to make any accusations of nepotism, retorted Neil Hamilton, the minister for corporate affairs. The last Labour prime minister (Lord Callaghan) had appointed his son-in-law as ambassador in Washington.
Sir Anthony Steen, Tory MP for South Hams, stuck to the watery theme while raising the Government's favourite topic of deregulation. 'In Spain there are 63 fisheries officials based in Madrid, 1,000 miles from the coast. It's just like running the Wembley Cup Final with the referee in Aberdeen.'
Arch Tory Euro-rebel Sir Teddy Taylor, MP for Southend East, raised a strong protest over Britain's pounds 100bn trade deficit with the EC - a 'ridiculous socialist organisation'. But Mr Heseltine was not having any of that. Heavy inward investment from Japan and the US was 'a very important other side of the argument. That would be at risk if we were to question our membership.'
Subsequent last-ditch clashes over the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill provisions to restrict the right of silence also drew their share of backbench Tory dissent, Sir Ivan Lawrence, the right-wing Tory chairman of the Commons home affairs committee included. He rejected Labour's charge that 'political rhetoric' underlay the change, but pressed for the measure to apply only if police interviews had been taped.
Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, insisted it had been accurately termed a 'Freedom of Information Act for juries' as it cleared its Commons stages.Reuse content