Inside Parliament: Rip-roaring return for Cabinet showman: Heseltine back in action after heart attack - Cook says Tories responsible for red tape

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Indy Politics
Michael Heseltine yesterday reclaimed his mantle as the showman of the Cabinet, tearing up a copy of the European socialist parties' manifesto at the despatch box in his first speech to the Commons since his heart attack last June.

Watched from a side gallery by his wife, Anne, the President of the Board of Trade appeared somewhat nervous, notes occasionally shaking in his hand, but quickly assumed the familiar oratorical style.

Interruptions were brushed aside with vigour. Left-winger Dennis Skinner was told he wanted to return the docks to an era of thousands of men carrying loads on their backs with a 'national union of sack carriers'. But his particular scorn was reserved for Robin Cook, the Labour trade and industry spokesman, and John Smith, the Labour leader.

Noting that Mr Smith - like the Prime Minister - was not present for trade and industry day of the debate on the Queen's Speech, Mr Heseltine said he was probably with some of his new boardroom friends. 'But it isn't just smoked salmon he is after.'

Mr Smith had 'a very different agenda' in the manifesto agreed by European socialist parties for next June's election to the Strasbourg parliament. 'He says it doesn't mean all that it says. But it has got his name on it and he is a lawyer,' Mr Heseltine said to the mounting delight of Tory backbenchers. It included the prospect of a 35-hour or four-day week, works councils, a minimum wage and an end to tax- cutting competition between member states.

Building up to his theatrical best, he said there was 'one other little nugget tucked away in this manifesto . . . a European policy on waste . . . Let's start with the manifesto itself.' And with that he tore in two the copy in his hands.

'Every competitive advantage this country possesses thrown away . . . To pursue the international brotherhood of man is one thing, but to sell the dear old country down the river to get it is another.'

Mr Heseltine dealt somewhat cursorily with the legislation his department will be promoting in this parliamentary session - privatising the coal industry, on deregulation and on trade marks. Richard Caborn, Labour chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, told him: 'It is good to see you back on form again. It is entertaining if not very factual.'

Earlier, at Question Time, Mr Heseltine declared that the Opposition 'won't silence me' . Nor did they, though he seemed somewhat taken aback to learn of his own record on red tape. Robin Cook said that of all the regulations under review as 'a burden on business', 71 per cent had been introduced since the Conservatives took office, 21 per cent since John Major became Prime Minister.

The second largest number were from the trade department. Of these 84 per cent had been introduced since 1979, 27 per cent since Mr Major took office and 13 per cent since Mr Heseltine became President.

'As the overwhelming majority of these burdens on business have been introduced by the Conservatives, is there no one now in the Conservative Government willing to defend their record of 14 years regulating, including his own?' Mr Cook asked. To laughter, Mr Heseltine replied: 'This is excellent news. It shows how we are determined to continue to improve our performance.'

Opening the debate, Mr Cook said deregulation was being offered as 'a sort of grotesque parody of an industrial strategy. Instead of measures that would provide for more investment, more skills, more technology, we are presented with a measure which will bring in lower environmental standards and a lower level of consumer protection.' Mr Heseltine accused him of trying to frighten people.

The contest highlighted the difference in style between the two, with Mr Cook the more forensic. The Labour spokesman said Christopher Spackman, managing director of Bovis Construction and head of the DTI task force reviewing rules in the construction industry, had spoken of 'killing off' building regulations. Bovis's parent company had given the Tory party pounds 600,000 over the past five years, Mr Cook said. 'There is a word to describe the arrangement by which the party in government takes large sums from a company and then takes direction from that company on which regulations it would be convenient for it to be scrapped.

'That word is corruption - of a party that has been in power so long it has forgotten it holds office in the public interest, not the vested interest of its friends.'

Mr Heseltine made no direct response to this typically detailed charge from Mr Cook. However, opening his speech, the President said that when he returned to the House someone asked him 'How's life? I replied: 'A great deal better than the alternative'. As I listened to Mr Cook I wondered whether I hadn't been a little rash.'

(Photograph omitted)