Inside Parliament: Reserve teams fail to raise a cheer: NHS pledges repeated at Question Time; MacGregor bows to backbenches on railcards; Government defeat on housing Bill in Lords

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Indy Politics
THE UNVEILING by the Queen of a statue of Field Marshal Viscount Alanbrooke, the wartime strategist, enabled John Major and John Smith to slip away from the Commons yesterday and leave the ritual Question Time contest to their deputies, Tony Newton and Margaret Beckett.

The sense of anti-climax was palpable. Fewer MPs than usual were present, while for the public in the gallery it was as if they had queued to see Manchester United and out trotted Maidstone United.

Mr Newton, Leader of the Commons, was first tackled by Peter Mandelson, Labour's former communications director, who sought a guarantee that the Government would never force patients to pay for National Health Service beds. 'A system of charging for beds would be a tax in which the longer you were ill the more you would pay, and destroy at a stroke the principle of an NHS free at the time of need,' said Mr Mandelson, MP for Hartlepool.

Mr Newton cited a Conservative Party manifesto promise that 'need, not ability to pay, is and will remain the basis on which care is offered to all in the NHS', and he quoted a statement by the Prime Minister that pledges would be honoured 'both in spirit and in letter'.

Though Mr Newton raised his voice for the occasion, such is his delivery style that the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, called the next questioner before he had a chance to read the jibe prepared especially for Mr Mandelson.

Allowed a second chance, Mr Newton continued to Opposition jeers: 'While I'm at it may I just say how good it was to see the honourable gentleman back from his triumph in masterminding the loss of Labour's deposit at Newbury.'

Mrs Beckett, the deputy Labour leader, asked if Mr Newton recalled manifesto pledges not to increase National Insurance contributions, not to extend VAT and to maintain mortgage interest relief. All had been broken.

Mr Newton said the Prime Minister had made clear last week that public spending was being reviewed 'against the background of the pledges we've made and the need to protect the most vulnerable'. Was Mrs Beckett disowning her party leader's statement that 'we should be prepared to re-examine everything'?

But Mrs Beckett had more questions of her own. 'The Leader of the House and his party keep talking about tough decisions. When is this government going to take the tough decision to admit even the smallest share of the blame for the state to which this country is being reduced, never mind the price they're asking the British people to pay?'

Banging a final nail into the myth of spontaneity, Mr Newton said his Labour shadow must count as 'some kind of an expert' on the price people had to pay.

'I have been looking back at something said by her honourable friend the member for Eccles (Joan Lestor), some time ago . . . 'I will not take lessons in left-wing unity from Margaret Beckett,' she said. 'She was the person who went into the 1976 Labour government to implement the cuts over which I had resigned'.'

Miss Lestor, an under-secretary for education at the time, turned the reference to advantage on a point of order. She was flattered that Mr Newton should 'remember an incident 17 years ago when no one in seven years' time will remember him at all . . . If a few more Conservatives resigned because of the policies on which they have reneged, this country politically would be a healthier place.'

Miss Lestor's doctrine would radically reshape John Major's Cabinet without need of a reshuffle. Climbdowns have become an almost weekly occurrence. Yesterday's was executed by John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport; bowing to Tory backbench pressure and promising that the Railways Bill will be amended in the Lords to guarantee the continuation of concessionary railcards for pensioners, young people and the disabled.

Sir Keith Speed, Conservative MP for Ashford and leader of the potential rebellion, pronounced himself satisfied with the assurance and did not press his new clause on concessionary fares to a division as the privatisation Bill cleared the Commons.

Brian Wilson, a Labour transport spokesman, observed: 'Tory rebellions are bit like tooth fairies - believe in them when you see them.' He dismissed the concession as 'very, very inadequate', pointing out that it did not cover the holders of 250,000 family railcards, 740,000 London travel cards and 300,000 Network cards.

Mr MacGregor said family railcards were marketing

initiatives without the same social connotation. The Bill was given a third reading by 307 votes to 292.

Whatever the truth about tooth fairies, rebellions have been real enough in the House of Lords during the passage of the multi-purpose Housing and Urban Development Bill. Property-owning peers have bitterly opposed its provisions giving private-sector tenants a right to buy the freeholds of their homes. Last night a bit more of it was chipped away, and the Government was defeated by 123 votes to 107, as peers backed a move to deny the new right to flat owners in cathedral closes.