Inside Parliament : Spirit of Tory unity survives Yeltsin's 'death'

t Conservatives deny lurch to the right t House misled on Russian president
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Try as Tony Blair and his team did yesterday to portray the Tories as having lurched to the right, all the evidence from the backbenches is that the party has lurched to unity, its electoral survival instincts positively bristling. Sniping about a single currency, once a regular feature of Prime Minister's Question Time, has stopped altogether. And yesterday even the maverick Nicholas Winterton devoted his prime-time place to an easy one on how much better Britain is doing than other countries in tackling unemployment.

"It is extraordinary that the Labour Party should accuse the Conservative Party of being uncaring," said the Macclesfield MP, who in the past has used such occasions to protest about the plight of manufacturing industry, the housing slump and health service cuts.

Mr Blair, seizing on newspaper reports, asked the Prime Minister to confirm that changes in housing benefit would mean that thousands of vulnerable people - "pensioners, the disabled and families with young children" - would lose help and face poverty or eviction. The new guidelines are intended to save pounds 400m a year.

"How can this possibly be fair and isn't it the clearest evidence of his party's lurch to the right and the death of One-Nation Conservatism?"

"Indeed it is not," John Major replied. "My party remains in the centre of politics and that is where it will always be."

Mr Blair's outrage was rather artificial because he clearly believed the Guardian story was a leaked document, the Prime Minister said. In fact it related to measures approved by the Commons last July.

Approved despite Labour opposition, that is. The Labour leader pointed out that housing benefit had risen as housing investment had been slashed. "If the problem, as was suggested by the social security minister, is private landlords charging excessive rents, isn't the sensible thing to tackle that head on - not use the vulnerable and innocent tenants as pawns to clear up a mess of the Government's own making?"

But the Prime Minister took that as a commitment to rent controls and hoped the whole country had heard it. "He can't shake his head. He has just given a Labour commitment to rent controls. Presumably in the private sector it would mean no more available lettings. Presumably in the public sector he would hold down rents artificially and push up the level of borrowing and tax."

The Prime Minister reaffirmed his intention to tighten controls on asylum seekers, agreeing with Sir Ivan Lawrence, Tory chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, who said it was about time Britain acted "against those who have no right to be in this country".

Unity was proclaimed in manic fashion by right-winger David Evans, MP for Welwyn and Hatfield. "Unlike Labour we on this side are totally united behind our leader," raved Mr Evans, a lieutenant of John Redwood in the Tory leadership contest. Labour's charge of a "lurch to the right" was repeated by Ann Taylor, shadow leader of the House, as she pressed Tony Newton on the future of the troubled Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill - intended to extend the rights of unmarried couples. The Bill was "being destroyed by the extreme wing of the Conservative Party," she alleged.

Mr Newton, Leader of the House, neutralised that one but then got into a muddle over the fate of Boris Yeltsin - expressing the shock and sadness of the Commons at the death of the Russian President only to find out minutes later that he was still alive. Tim Devlin, Conservative MP for Stockton South, relayed the false report to MPs and asked for a debate or statement on any ramifications for British foreign policy.

To consternation in the House and public gallery, Mr Newton replied: "I have myself only just heard what I am sure will be news greeted with sadness and a degree of shock in the House." Harold Elletson, Tory MP for Blackpool North, said the president's death would leave a "power vacuum at the heart of one of the world's superpowers".

But eight minutes later his party colleague Sir Patrick Cormack, MP for Staffordshire South, resurrected the Russian president: "I have just been out to check ... It appears from the tape that at 4pm President Yeltsin was alive."

t The Commons will prorogue on 8 November until the new session opens with the Queen's Speech on 15 November.

Today's Business - Commons: (9.30am) Debate on sport. Lords: Not sitting.

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