Inside Parliament: Shocks in store as Budget marathon ends: Cook serves up recipe for disenchantment - Fuel tax portrayed in life and death terms

Click to follow
The marathon five-day debate on the Budget ended last night with a warning by Robin Cook to Tory backbenchers that their constituents would wonder what all the cheering was about when the bills had to be paid next April.

What distinguished Kenneth Clarke's Budget was that people represented by Conservative MPs got 'clobbered' just as much as Labour's people, Mr Cook, Labour's Trade and Industry spokesman, said. 'It is the married, mortgaged, motoring middle classes who are, for once, going to face the biggest burden of this century's biggest tax bill.'

In any other advanced western country, such an assault would produce a revolution, Brian Sedgemore, Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, observed. 'It will be interesting to see if there is more to the middle classes in Britain than chatter.'

Mr Cook, making it personal, told the House: 'Anyone on an MP's pay - pounds 30,854 for a backbencher - from next April will lose pounds 70 a month.'

Discomfort was written on the faces opposite. Their champion, Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, had opened the debate without his usual panache. Though he briefly let fly at Mr Cook as 'the little boy who has cried 'wolf' once too often', he laboured long with a text stuffed with statistics on the UK's non-EU export volumes and the like.

An attempt to raise the interest level with a minor announcement of a pounds 16m joint environmental technology best-practice programme was punctured by Labour's Andrew Miller, who asked if the money was not simply an exchange for the much greater sum saved by the closure of the DTI's Warren Springs scientific laboratory.

Mr Heseltine said the five-year programme would make the best environmental technology and techniques more widely known to potential users and suppliers. 'With a strong emphasis on reducing and eliminating waste and pollution at source, it will show that improved environmental performance can go hand-in-hand with improved competitiveness.' Hardly vintage Heseltine.

He said that difficult decisions about the deficit had been taken in the Budget and the Conservatives would fight the next general election against a background of improving economic news. 'If there is a theme to link our agenda in social services, education, the health service and capital investment, it is that it is an agenda for change . . . There is a continued debate about the way forward . . . But whether you look in this country, or across the entire democratic world, the debate about the ways forward for our sorts of societies is within the right-wing of politics.'

Mr Cook said that he preferred to the President's 'reading of the brief', the 'rather more lively' speech he had made during the Queen's Speech debate. 'The high point of that act was the tearing up of the (European) Socialist manifesto. I had hoped for a sequel. After Tuesday's Budget I would have thought the most appropriate highlight . . . was tearing up the Conservative manifesto. Because that is what the Chancellor did.'

From next April, the middle classes were going to need every penny they could spare to pay the equivalent of an extra 5p in the pound on income tax. Yet the Treasury predicted a rise in consumer spending of 2.25 per cent. 'This is the economics of Paul Daniels. It beggars belief that a nation that has seen its income cut is going to respond by increasing its spending,' Mr Cook said.

To Labour's chagrin, the vote at the close of the debate was specifically not on the imposition of VAT on fuel. At Question Time, John Smith accused the Prime Minister of deliberately suppressing a vote on VAT, leaving it out of the Budget resolution 'to allow Tory backbenchers off the hook'.

John Major said that MPs had voted on the issue 'on more than one occasion' and claimed later that only the Labour leader's incompetence had stopped him tabling an amendment to the resolution.

For possibly thousands of people this is a matter of life or death, according to Dawn Primarolo, a Labour health spokeswoman. She told MPs that Dr Brenda Boardman of Oxford University had calculated that, even with compensation, a further 2,500 people would die because of the fuel tax. 'Does the minister not feel responsibility for these deaths?' she demanded of the anything-but-brutal John Bowis.

But research the Under-Secretary for Health had seen suggested there was no such connection. He said that if Ms Primarolo wanted to help the elderly she should join him in advising them to avoid having one room hotter than another. 'What is clear is that the change of temperature affects circulation and that is avoidable.' Nobody asked if VAT might lead to more people leaving both rooms cold.

Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, rounded on her Labour shadow, David Blunkett, for claiming that, as part of the Budget settlement, prescription charges could rise from pounds 4.25 to a 'staggering' pounds 5, and pregnant women and nursing mothers lose their exemption. 'Once again Mr Blunkett's predictions will be shown to be false,' she declared.

Paddy Ashdown put out a lengthy statement after Dennis Skinner told the House on a point of order that a group from Yeovil had come to Westminster on Monday and handed him a petition with 4,500 signatures against the development of a Sainsbury's supermarket. 'Apparently the member for Yeovil didn't take it.'

Nothing unites Labour and the Tories like a bit of Ashdown-baiting. 'As always Mr Skinner is seeking to be helpful to the House,' the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, said. The Liberal Democrat leader, who sits directly behind the Labour member for Bolsover, endured the mirth, explaining later that he was in Yeovil at the time. Had he been aware of the petition from the Wyndham Action Group he would have received and presented it, even though his own poll showed a 2-1 majority wanted the store.