Inside Parliament : Prime Minister pulps `fictional' call for a spell in Opposition

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Indy Politics
John Major came to the Commons yesterday armed with a pithy putdown for his party's former treasurer, Lord McAlpine of West Green, who thinks a spell in opposition would be healthy for the Conservatives.

Cast into the wilderness, the party would be able to renew its ideological cutting edge, Lord McAlpine said in an interview published in the New Statesman and Society.

Inevitably, Mr Major was going to be asked to comment at Question Time, and Labour's Chris Mullin duly obliged. Had the Prime Minister read Lord McAlpine's comments about a spell in opposition, "and would he agree with me this is one of the rare occasions when the interests of the Tory party and the country coincide?" asked the Sunderland South MP.

Mr Major replied: "I did see the comments in the New Statesman. I understand that Lord McAlpine is promoting his book which is a work of fiction."

Dennis Skinner wondered if Mr Major had read another report - "that if the Tory party loses more than 1,000 seats in the local government elections in May, which they undoubtedly will, senior Tory MPs are going to kick him out like a dog in the night. Last year the Prime Minister said he'd got three bastards in the Cabinet. I don't think he can count."

Joining in the laughter, Mr Major said: "The question might well have been asked of me last year, the year before last and the year before that, and almost certainly was - and very probably it will be asked of me next year, the year after that and the year after that."

Mr Major drew back from jumping into the local elections campaign with quite the gusto of Jeremy Hanley, the Conservative Party chairman, who said on Wednesday that Labour local government "tends to be corrupt".

Embellishing the Hanley charge, David Shaw, MP for Dover, asked if the Prime Minister agreed "that the existing evidence of Labour councillors personally benefiting from fraud, corruption, nepotism and inefficiencies is such that people should be informed about it before they vote in the local government elections".

But Mr Major stopped short of crying corruption. "I have no doubt there are many cases of waste and inefficiency and malpractice in Labour councils, and increasingly one has seen that in auditors' reports."

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, focused on Chancellor Kenneth Clarke's admission that there will be no feel-good factor for two years at least. Mr Blair pointed out that in a few weeks' time there would be cuts in mortgage tax relief and the married couples' allowance, adding "around £250 a year" to the average family's tax bill.

"With taxes up and mortgages up and living standards falling, all the Chancellor has done is confirm what the vast majority of British people already knew; that unless you are one of the favoured few at the top, you are worse off under the Tories."

Mr Major confirmed the tax changes, but asked which taxes Mr Blair would cut. "Which pieces of expenditure has he opposed?"

Labour accused the Government of trying to "patch up a crisis" as a Bill intended to strengthen care in the community for the mentally ill was given a Second Reading in the House of Lords.

The Mental Health (Patients in the Community) Bill introduces a new power of supervised discharge or after-care supervision for mental patients leaving hospital. It also closes a legal loophole by which a patient who absconds cannot be detained if away for more than 28 days - an "anachronism" dating back to the 1890 Lunacy Act. Safety and protection of the public were "inseparable" from the interests of mentally ill people themselves, said Baroness Cumberlege, Under-Secretary for Health.

The Bill is a response to public concern over violent attacks and killing by mentally-ill patients released into the community.

But Baroness Jay of Paddington, for Labour, said it reminded her of the Dangerous Dogs Act which followed high-profile tragedies involving dog attacks. "A few very serious incidents lead to a reactive measure which seeks more to reassure some tabloid opinion than to solve the problem."

Lady Jay said the Ritchie report into the murder of Jonathan Zito by schizophrenic Christopher Clunis on the London Underground had recommended that aftercare for patients had to be properly co-ordinated and supervised.

Disputing Lady Cumberlege's assertion that supervised discharge will not have significant resource implications, she said the overall problem was "clearly inadequate services, not inadequate laws".

Reinforcing the point, Baroness Robson, for the Liberal Democrats, said if the Bill was to have any chance of improving services to patients, the Government had to withdraw the statement in the financial memorandum that it should give rise to no additional cost to health authorities or local authorities.

"It will not work unless we fund it."