Inside Parliament: Opponents mown down by Clarke during U-turn

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Indy Politics
Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, slapped down his Labour shadow, Tony Blair, as a 'tabloid politician' yesterday after Mr Blair used an announcement on the unit fine system to exploit claims that MI5 bugged the Prince and Princess of Wales.

Despite blazing newspaper headlines and predictions that John Major would be challenged over the royal buggers, the affair was not mentioned at all during Prime Minister's Questions nor during the preceeding 45 minutes of exchanges with Home Office ministers.

However, Mr Blair turned to it as he responded to a statement by Mr Clarke abandoning much-criticised sentencing rules introduced in the 1991 Criminal Justice Act. 'Either these transcripts circulating are forgeries, in which case there has almost certainly been a serious offence of criminal fraud committed, or they are genuine, in which case a gross intrusion of privacy by illegal means has taken place,' Mr Blair said.

'In either event, given that the Home Secretary is responsible for criminal justice issues concerning the Royal Family, are not these matters ripe for serious and urgent investigation, irrespective of the position of the security services?'

'I find Mr Blair's choice of priorities in politics utterly absurd,' the Home Secretary retorted. 'We are considering extremely important matters. He kicks off by making his first priority questions, presumably placed on behalf of the Daily Mirror to sell rather sleazy royal books, to rouse me to inquire into utterly ridiculous allegations for which he knows perfectly well there is no shred of support whatever. He really is a tabloid politician, unable to turn his attention to any serious criminal matters at all.'

Though Mr Clarke was back-tracking on provisions piloted through the House two years ago by his colleague John Patten, he is not given to contrition. Robert Maclennan, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, was similarly mauled when he protested at the 'utter gall' of the Home Secretary in attacking Mr Blair for seeking headlines.

'The whole of this operation is designed to catch the headline 'Crackdown on Crime',' Mr Maclennan said angrily. Escalating crime figures were 'without parallel in our history'. Mr Clarke was bringing foward a total reversal of policy 'in order to feather his own petty personal policies at this time'.

His voice rising, Mr Maclennan said the Royal Commission on criminal justice was reaching its final conculsions. 'He has the affrontery and lack of sense to bring forward measures, ill-thought out at a time when he doesn't even know whether Parliament is allowed to consider them. It's surely time that he sat on the backburner and allowed sensible debate to take place in the House.'

Mr Clarke told him: 'Go away, lie down in a dark room, keep taking the tablets, and think very carefully whether the Liberal Democrats have a single opinion one way or the other on the merits of any of the proposals I have just made.'

Soft sentencing was only one of a number of familiar demons paraded before the Commons with Tory backbenchers and ministers inveighing against New Age travellers, pornography, the right of an accused person to silence - 'the criminal's best friend', according to Graham Riddick - the European exchange rate mechanism, and trade unions, notably the National Union of Teachers.

The Reinsurance (Acts of Terrorism) Bill, making government the 'reinsurer of last resort' after terrorist incidents such as the Bishopgate bomb, passed all its stages. Neil Hamilton, Under-Secretary at the DTI, said it would 'deny terrorists of all kinds the fruits of their Satanic endeavours to bring the country and its commerce to a standstill'.

The NUT's overwhelming vote in favour of a boycott of tests for 7 and 14 year olds was offered up by John Smith, the Labour leader, as one more reason why the Government should suspend this summer's tests. But John Major insisted they should still go ahead, suggesting darkly that the NUT was pursuing 'another agenda' - presumably meaning a political one against the Government's education changes as a whole.

Mr Smith said that since the opposition of the whole of the teaching profession had been reinforced by the overwhelming NUT vote, it would be 'sensible' to suspend the compulsory tests this year.

The Prime Minister replied: 'I think what should be called off is the unprofessional and utterly futile boycott threats. Teachers should do what the majority of parents in this country want - co-operate in helping to make the tests work this year and in future years.'

But Mr Smith said there was overwhelming opposition to the tests from parents and governors as well. 'Why doesn't the Prime Minister show a glimmer of common sense and end the farce now . . . To be so foolishly stubborn is a sign of weakness, not strength.'

Mr Major said it was 'common sense' to proceed. 'I hope, even at this late stage, the teachers will realise the importance for pupils of having these tests, the importance to the reform of testing of having these tests, and also the importance to the dignity of the profession of teaching in not proceeding with industrial action at the expense of schools.'

Serving up another opportunity for Mr Major to bash the Labour leadership, John Gorst, Conservative MP for Hendon North, claimed that since 1979 trade union membership had fallen by 28 per cent. 'Can he say whether this is due to being a growing anachronism, badly led, or merely because they have a limpet- like, hand-in-glove connection with the Labour Party?'

Mr Major said many of the unions still sponsor Labour frontbenchers and those unions 'are resisting suggestions that they should abandon their outdated block vote in favour of one member, one vote - a case of 'he who pays the piper calls the tune'. Labour MPs pointed at the Conservative benches and some shouted 'Nadir'. The fugitive businessman gave pounds 440,000 to the Tory party, it has been alleged in the Commons.

Having presented a policy U-turn as if it was a reforming triumph and put down the Labour and Lib Dem spokesmen into the bargain, Mr Clarke had a good day. The only MP to get much of a laugh at the Home Secretary's expense was Labour's Bob Cryer, appealing for funding for a women's bus service in Bradford. Some pounds 18,000 would get the bus back on the road, he said. 'It's about the same as the cost of the chauffeur- driven car for the Home Secretary - and looking at Mr Clarke he could do with the exercise.'