Inside Parliament: Thatcher casts her shadow over Commons

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Indy Politics
Baroness Thatcher set the agenda for the Commons yesterday as her call to arm the Bosnian Muslims struck a chord among backbenchers on both sides of the House.

The former prime minister's assault on the policy of her one-time ministers - the essence of which she reiterated in the House of Lords - dominated Foreign Office questions and a statement by Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr Rifkind expressed 'outrage' at Monday's artillery attack on Srebrenica, which killed at least 56 people. But while he described it as 'a new milestone of inhumanity in a conflict which had already spawned many atrocities', he insisted it was right to stick with current policy - 'thankless and frustrating as it is'.

Certainly there were no thanks from Lady Thatcher herself when the statement was repeated in the Upper House by Baroness Chalker, Minister of State at the Foreign Office. The Government should not support a policy which told the Muslims 'you must submit and surrender', Lady Thatcher said. They had a right of self-defence but were without the means of implementing it against a vicious aggressor. 'We would not stand for it in this country.' The right of self defence was not invented by the United Nations but was as old as mankind. 'There is nothing moral or right about leaving a people defenceless in the path of a determined dictator-aggressor.'

Lady Chalker told her: 'It would be impossible to sustain the humanitarian operation if we were to follow the course which you were advocating yesterday on television. It is not a question of leaving people unprotected. It is a question of making sure we work together to stop an all-out war which many of the solutions advocated by you could well cause.'

Mr Rifkind told the Commons that lifting the arms embargo would prolong the conflict and 'make it even bloodier and more vicious than it is today, bringing continuing suffering to innocent civilians'.

But MPs who had seldom a good word to say for Lady Thatcher when she ruled their daily lives - not all of them Labour - shared her view that the UN could not stand 'idly by' while civilians were being massacred.

Tony Banks, Labour MP for Newham North West, drew approval from both sides when he said: 'Margaret Thatcher at least articulated the deep anger and frustration that many people in this country feel about the inability of the European Community powers to actually do something about the situation in Bosnia. 'Is it not now time to consider giving an ultimatum to the Serbian government that unless they bring the Bosnian Serbs to account, there will be strikes against military targets inside Serbia in order to try to cut off the supply of arms from Serbia to the Bosnian Serbs?'

This, as Mr Rifkind acknowledged, was a similar suggestion to Lady Thatcher's. But he warned: 'The UN would be becoming quite consciously and deliberately a combatant in that war. . . That would not only terminate the humanitarian efforts of the UN, including of the United Kingdom, but would fundamentally change the whole nature of international involvement in that war without any certainty or likelihood that that would bring an early end to the conflict.'

Mr Rifkind's assertion that there were 'no easy solutions' was borne out by contradictory calls for action, notably air strikes, and warnings of the consequences.

David Howell, Conservative chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said there was 'a real danger of being dragged into a far wider and more difficult conflict unless there is some check imposed on the Serbian-driven expansionism'. But his party colleague, Sir Nicholas Bonsor, chairman of the Defence Select Committee, wanted an assurance that British troops would be withdrawn if policy changed and there were to be attacks on Serbian gun positions. 'We have many troops sitting under the barrels of Serbian artillery and I have no doubt they would be the subject of retaliation the moment any air attack was launched,' Sir Nicholas said. Mr Rifkind agreed it would be 'very difficult if not impossible' to contemplate continuing the UN humanitarian operation if it was authorising military strikes.

Conservative Harold Elletson, Blackpool North, said Lady Thatcher's comments should be treated 'with the contempt they deserve', but Peter Fry, Tory MP for Wellingborough, clearly agreed with them. The UN had to say 'enough was enough' and act or get out. The British people were 'a little ashamed', he said. Mr Rifkind dismissed this as 'the counsel of despair'.

Less emotion but rather more time was expended by the minority of MPs who stayed on to debate the Criminal Justice Bill, which was later given an unopposed Second Reading.

Already passed by the Lords, the Bill tackles insider dealing and money laundering. Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, said: 'Financial crime and fraud is as criminal and as big a menace to society as theft, robbery and burglary. It needs to be dealt with as effectively and as severely as other crime.'

The Bill also aims to choke off the supply of cash to terrorists and make it easier to hit the 'ill-gotten' wealth of drug traffickers.

The first day back after the Easter recess opened with a rare speaking appeareance by David Lightbown, a Government whip, moving the writ for the Newbury by-election. The contest, to fill the vacancy left by the death of Conservative Judith Chaplin, will be on 6 May, the same day as the local government elections.

Meanwhile in the Lords, Baroness Cumberlege, a junior health minister, promised that the committee which advises the Government on food labelling would consider the possibility of a warning against swallowing chewing gum or eating the wax on cheeses such as Edam.

Lady Cumberledge told peers the Scientific Committee on Toxicity was considering the latest data on the effects on health of the use of mineral hydrocarbons in food. No adverse effects had been reported but she was aware that long-term exposure in the diet might cause difficulties.

She agreed to put to the committee a suggestion by Viscount Falkland, a Liberal Democrat, for a warning on foods such as cheeses with a waxy outside which, along with chewing gum, contained a high proportion of mineral hydrocarbons.

'Although most of us who chew gum can think of something more sensible to do with it rather than swallow it, there are some people nevertheless who may nibble at the outside of cheeses,' Lord Falkland said.

(Photograph omitted)