Inside Parliament: Political truce ends as parties call up the big guns: Beckett challenges the Prime Minister over broken election pledges - Derision greets Heseltine's competition review - Bottomley attacks Labour MP for NHS 'scare-mongering'

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The political truce which followed John Smith's death was rendered little more than a unreal interlude yesterday as the big guns on both sides of the Westminster trenches opened up with heavy electioneering barrages.

In an effective Question Time sally, Margaret Beckett, the interim Labour leader, challenged John Major with a string of promises made in Tory manifestos for the 1989 European and 1992 general elections and then broken.

She recalled that in the last Euro-manifesto, the Tories had said they would not put VAT on gas and electricity and had added: 'We stand by that pledge. We will honour it.' She said: 'Hasn't it become clear that this Government is incapable of honouring any pledge?'

'It isn't remotely clear,' the Prime Minister replied, and went on to give an explanation which could provide a get-out to virtually any political promise. 'We have to respond to the reality of events in the interests of the people of this country.'

Mrs Beckett should bear in mind the contradictions within her own party, he said. One day Labour attacked the Government's tax proposals and the next proposed a string of new taxes. One day Labour asked for fresh expenditure and the next day Gordon Brown, the Shadow Chancellor, said their was no commitment.

Mrs Beckett came back: 'Can the Prime Minister explain why in the last general election in 1992 he and his party promised not only not to extend or increase VAT, not to increase National Insurance contributions, not to impose any other taxes or charges and indeed promised tax cuts 'year on year'? Why is it that in manifesto after manifesto, this Government makes promises that they then betray?'

Mr Major said Labour's pro- tem leader was 'misquoting and misunderstanding'. He preferred to talk about distinctions between the European socialist manifesto which Labour was 'committed' to and its domestic manifesto for the 9 June elections. 'Only a matter of a few weeks ago, they (Labour) were signing up to promises in Europe that they dare not admit to in this current election.'

Mr Major warned that throughout the campaign the Tories would be running 'quote after quote' on what Labour had signed up to in Europe - notably a 35-hour working week. And Mrs Beckett had given notice that she will be countering with quote after quote on broken promises.

Michael Heseltine can be sure that quote after quote of his statement on competitiveness will not go ringing down the years. Dripping with Whitehall-meets- PR jargon about innovation credits, comprehensive export support networks and supply chain partnerships, it seemed to have been planted on the President of the Board of Trade to sabotage any leadership intentions.

As he heaped review on review on initiatives, all in the cause of boosting Britain's competitive edge, Opposition MPs greeted each one with mounting cheers of derision. Robin Cook, Labour's industry spokesman, said the Competitiveness White Paper and Mr Heseltine's entire review had not produced a single extra penny of spending for the DTI.

If the Government was serious about dealing with competitiveness, why didn't the document offer a single measure to stimulate research and development or to boost industrial investment? 'What was the point of felling all the trees to provide 160 pages of this White Paper if the president did not have one new idea to put into it?'

Mr Heseltine worked himself up into full red-faced party conference mode for his response, claiming it was well beyond Mr Cook's abilities to take part in any 'serious, intellectual analysis' of Britain's problems. But the House had already judged. As the Liberal Democrat Don Foster put it: 'The president's statement and the mode of its delivery has at least given short-term job security to his Prime Minister.'

David Hunt, Secretary of State for Employment, had more concrete proposals in his part of the competitiveness package, including pounds 300m to spend on apprenticeships and training.

John Prescott - Labour's employment spokesman and, like Mrs Beckett and Mr Cook, a possible leftish candidate for party leader - said this did not go far enough. It was 'a statement of illusion'. There had been 22 statements on training initiatives since 1979 but only two schemes lasted more than five years. 'All were launched with the razzamatazz of media publicity - but irrelevant to the skills crisis facing Britain.'

First to get back in the bear pit was the Secretary of State for Health Virginia Bottomley who deploys a particularly biting line in personal abuse. Yesterday her target was Peter Mandelson who, as Labour's director of communications, was a prime mover in creating the red rose image.

Now MP for Hartlepool, Mr Mandelson attacked the 'scandal' of the growing amount of NHS money going into private medicine, declaring it 'a classic illustration of the two-tier health system the Government is creating'.

But Mrs Bottomley dismissed this as scaremongering. 'Mr Mandelson is speaking as the political apparatchik that he is. His obsession with the ownership of the means of production shows him for the clause 4 socialist typical of the Labour Party.' Had all that spin-doctoring on behalf of the modernisers gone so unnoticed by Mrs Bottomley?

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