Inside Parliament: Tradition overturned by Tories in a flap: Labour silent on rail strike - Bill to outlaw 'cowboy' cosmetic surgeons - Canine prescience

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Indy Politics
No sooner had John Major expressed his wish to change the style of Prime Minister's Question Time than Tory backbenchers seized the initiative and turned the old tradition of waving Commons order papers on its head.

Time was when this accolade was reserved for prime ministers returning to the Commons after an electoral triumph. But yesterday they feted the loser. As Mr Major entered the chamber for the first time since his party lost one by-election and 16 European Parliament seats, Conservative backbenchers cheered and flapped their order papers. Labour MPs, with perhaps more reason to be grateful to Mr Major, gleefully followed suit.

The Prime Minister pointed up his wish to change parliamentary working practices at his press conference in the garden of 10 Downing Street on Monday. Commons sittings hours and Question Time are the main targets.

Paddy Ashdown asked what specific proposals he had in mind. The Liberal Democrat leader - who got to his feet to shouts of 'yesterday's man' from Dennis Skinner - said he was glad Mr Major agreed that PMQs needed to be made 'more intelligible' and 'in keeping with the views of the British people'.

Mr Major said there was 'a widespread feeling' that the 15 minutes could be more productively used. 'I believe it would be more appropriate if contemporary questions were put down the night before so that the prime minister of the day can deal with relevant matters. But I am prepared to answer whatever questions in whatever fashion may be put to me. I simply believe that from the point of view of the country outside, they would prefer to see us discussing relevant matters than some of the exchanges that occasionally take place.'

The open nature of PMQs at present enables MPs to raise all manner of subjects, topical or obscure, without notice and try to 'wrong foot' the Prime Minister.

Today's strike by 46,000 rail signal operators would certainly fall in to the 'relevant' category. Peter Ainsworth, Conservative MP for Surrey East, said the action would bring 'misery and inconvenience to millions of people trying to get to work or trying to go on their holidays.

'Those who are running for the Labour leadership should condemn this selfish action with equal vigour,' Mr Ainsworth said. The Prime Minister agreed the strike was 'unnecessary' and promised extra parking space in London.

Candidate Margaret Beckett, rising to Tory shouts of 'answer', did not take up Mr Ainsworth's suggestion and asked instead about tax - a subject the Prime Minister clearly found less 'relevant'.

Would Mr Major confirm it was still his intention to put up VAT on gas and electricity from 8 per cent to 17.5 per cent, asked the interim Labour leader. No he would not.

'It is very interesting that Mrs Beckett does not want to discuss the question of a strike. I think the whole country will notice that is the case and probably understand precisely why,' Mr Major said. If the Chancellor had any plans for changes in taxation he would announce them 'in the usual way at the usual time'.

Mrs Beckett said that with VAT up and other Budget changes a typical British family was paying pounds 500 more now and would be paying pounds 800 more next year. The Government was talking about tax cuts when the only thing in the pipeline was tax increases. 'It is this sheer deception and dishonesty that has led directly to the biggest defeat suffered by the Conservative Party in any national election.'

The Prime Minister said if Mrs Beckett was so concerned about tax, perhaps she would make clear what her own proposals were. 'Day after day Mrs Beckett and her friends make promises with no indication of how those promises would be paid for.'

MPs went on to approve the introduction of a private member's Bill to outlaw 'cowboy' cosmetic surgeons who promise to remove bags from under the eyes, or a spare tyre, when in fact they might be a vet or a reshuffled Cabinet minister.

Ann Clwyd, Labour MP for Cynon Valley, said anyone could offer cosmetic surgery in the private sector. Unless they specifically claimed to be a doctor or a surgeon they would not be committing an offence. Every year some 60,000 people opted for cosmetic surgery, but some were suffering pain and permanent scarring at the hands of 'unscrupulous butchers'.

Five by-election winners and a dog took their places in the Commons for the first time yesterday.

Of these, Lucy, the labrador cross, made the biggest stir by leading her owner, the blind Labour health spokesman David Blunkett, towards the Government front bench. 'It's a Tory dog,' shouted Conservative MPs - a more comfortable explanation for them than the reputed prescience of man's best friend.