Inside Parliament: Tory bruiser's bloodless debut: - Clarke ready to be 'business-friendly' - Major raises spectre of flying pickets - Rifkind's naval-gazing means job cuts

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Indy Politics
Kenneth Clarke yesterday promised a 'business-friendly government' prepared to intervene to help British industry, as he faced the House of Commons for his first Treasury question time.

The new Chancellor's reputation as a pugnacious dispatch box performer had raised expectations of a bruising exchange with Gordon Brown, his Labour shadow. But for those anticipating blood, the encounter was a disappointment.

Mr Brown asked what changes Mr Clarke was going to make, having admitted the trade deficit was a problem. 'Now the Chancellor has said at the Mansion House that achieving higher levels of growth is his objective, will he tell us the investment and employment measures that he will seek to bring in?

'Now the Prime Minister has changed the Chancellor, will the Chancellor now announce the detailed changes in policy so that the country can see action instead of just words?'

Tory backbenchers were hoping for a brutal put-down of the 'go away, lie down in a dark room, keep taking the tablets' vintage that Mr Clarke used a month ago, as Home Secretary, to demolish Robert Maclennan, the Liberal Democrat.

But the Chancellor said, without biting, that he had no intention of pre-empting the work of Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, or David Hunt, Secretary of State for Employment. 'All three of us are going to work in the same direction. My next major contribution will, no doubt, be in November's Budget. But I can assure Mr Brown that he is going to find he is facing a business-friendly government that does take specific measures to sustain British industry and commerce in the recovery it is already beginning to make.'

With Mr Clarke and Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, fresh from a Cabinet meeting on cutting the pounds 50bn public sector borrowing requirement, there was further pressure from Labour on the threat to invalidity benefit - met by the standard cry of 'scaremongering' - and suggestions from Tory backbenchers on where the axe should fall.

Toby Jessel, MP for Twickenham, urged that the NHS stop removing tattoos. From an altogether loftier plane, Sir Peter Tapsell, stockbroker, adviser to banks and MP for the rural backwater of East Lindsey, observed that Mr Clarke was the 13th Chancellor he had questioned.

'May I confidently express the hope that he will have a happier tenure of office than his 12 predecessors. And before his officials and advisers have time to bemuse him with contradictory economic theories and dogma, may I respectfully suggest to him that he take a firm grasp of the basic proposition that, if we had a large surplus on our balance of payments, it would not matter if we had a large public sector borrowing requirement - ie the balance of payments is the critical statistic, so he was absolutely right in his Guildhall speech to stress the importance of helping British industry.'

The 26,100 fall in unemployment was welcomed by John Major at Question Time, though he conceded the total remained too high - at 2,913,800. Labour did not just talk British industry down but given the chance would 'do it in'. Opposition MPs shouted 'boring' as the Prime Minister recited a list of woes Labour would heap on employers - minimum wages, the cost of the Social Chapter and the legalisation 'yet again' of flying pickets. 'They may regard it as boring; employers regard it as a job destruction programme.'

Ministry of Defence civilians who work in support of the Royal Navy reserves may think much the same of the deep cuts in Britain's reserve forces announced to the House by Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence. The 2,700-strong Royal Naval Auxiliary Service is to be disbanded and Royal Naval Reserve strength cut from 4,700 to 3,500; up to 200 civilian jobs will go.

Mr Rifkind plans to use Territorial Army volunteers to augment Regulars in UN peacekeeping roles. Reservists have only been called out at times of heightened tension or in war. He believed reservists would welcome the new role, but Julian Brazier, Tory MP for Canterbury and a former TA captain, disagreed. The clearest lesson from the Gulf war was 'that the worst possible thing you can do to Territorial soldiers is to ask them to volunteer twice,' he said.

'Calling for volunteers puts men in an impossible position with their employers, and sometimes with their families too. Either a unit should be called out . . . or it shouldn't'

David Clark, Labour's defence spokesman, wanted to 'see the small print' of the announcement but thought it was Treasury-driven, 'to screw money out of the MoD . . . It has given new meaning to the 'army of the unemployed' in this country'.

Taking issue with Mr Brazier over volunteering, and raising Labour suspicions of another 'fiddle' of the jobless total, Archie Hamilton, former Armed Forces minister, said that very often reservists were self- employed and sometimes unemployed. 'They are in those circumstances extremely grateful to serve.'