Inside Parliament: Would-be leaders put credentials on display: Truce crumbles as Cook and Heseltine clash over Royal Mail sale - Beckett warns of damage to service

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Indy Politics
Would-be party leaders flocked to the House of Commons yesterday, not, perish the thought, to press their claims, but fully aware of the keen light in which their performances would be judged.

Five possible candidates were present. Home Office questions set Tony Blair, a favourite for the Labour post, against Michael Howard, an outsider in any contest for the Tory leadership.

The waxing of Mr Blair's star, as he has made law and order a stronger card for Labour, has been mirrored by the waning of Mr Howard's as he has backtracked on police and court reforms. However they were the least confrontational of yesterday's hopefuls, agreeing on the need to tackle drug-taking by schoolchildren.

A statement on the future of the Royal Mail saw Robin Cook, a possible candidate from among Labour traditionalists, taking on Michael Heseltine, though the President of the Board of Trade's pitch for support fell well short of the full-blooded privatisation the Tory right is seeking.

And then there was Margaret Beckett, the acting Labour leader, settling in to the twice-weekly Question Time joust with the Prime Minister which she will conduct at least until July.

Mrs Beckett waded in on the Royal Mail. Why, when it was not even mentioned in the Conservative manifesto and when privatisation was 'causing chaos' for British Rail and pushing up gas prices, was the Government looking to privatise the Post Office?

John Major said Mrs Beckett would be 'well advised to wait' until Mr Heseltine had made his statement. But she wouldn't, saying the public's experience of privatisation had been higher charges and poorer services.

'At present the Post Office successfully combines running a profitable business and providing a public service of fundamental value to the whole community. Nobody can be confident that service will survive undamaged, especially in rural areas.'

The truce on party politicking maintained since John Smith's death had crumbled a little more. Mr Major hit back: 'It is interesting to see that the same old centralising tendency remains on the Opposition front bench.'

The private sector would run services better, he said. Once again Labour MPs had made conclusions before they knew what was proposed. 'Time and time again they have been proved wrong and on this occasion they will see how wrong they are very speedily.'

In fact Labour MPs, like the rest of the country, will have to wait a good bit longer to see how wrong (or right) were their fears for the Post Office. For Mr Heseltine announced another round of consultations on options contained in a Green Paper.

The counters business - and in particular the 19,200 privately- run sub post offices - will remain essentially the same. But the profit-making Royal Mail could either be given more commercial freedom or sold.

Mr Cook said there had already been two years of consultation costing pounds 1m. 'Isn't the real reason why Mr Heseltine does not announce his decision today that the Tories are terrified of announcing privatisation of the Post Office while the public still have a chance to vote upon it in the coming elections?'

He pointed out that assurances were given on uniform tariffs when British Gas was privatised. Yet last week the DTI agreed it could charge more in remote areas. The logic of the Post Office's success was that the best place for it was in the public sector.

Mr Cook was first to mention leadership. Reacting to protests from Tory right-wingers when he said keeping the Royal Mail in public ownership would have 'unanimous' support, he added: 'Well, Mr Heseltine would have unanimous support from everybody but those people whose votes he will need if he wants to become leader.'

Conservative MPs roared with delight, pointing at Mr Cook and the Labour benches. Mr Hesel tine said he had come to the House to discuss the Post Office, 'and suddenly the issue of leadership has been raised'. It was not a Green Paper Mr Cook wanted, but 'the reddest possible paper he can lay his hands on'.

'Having considered what he had to say and his ambitions, I think I can speak for all my colleagues and wish him personally the very best of luck,' Mr Heseltine said. He would even launch a campaign to help Mr Cook in what he was 'so obviously trying to achieve'.

Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish Nationalists, said Mr Heseltine wanted to 'put on a macho display of political virility for the electorate on the Tory back benches'.

But it remains a divided constituency. From the right, Edward Leigh, sacked last year by Mr Major from a junior DTI post, wanted an assurance there would be 'privatisation legislation in the next session of Parliament'. Mr Heseltine did not give one. Patrick Cormack, MP for Staffordshire South, declared: 'There are many old-fashioned Tories, of whom I am proud to be one, who view the prospect of Royal Mail plc about as favourably as the President of the Board of Trade would view his old regiment being replaced by Group 4 at Buckingham Palace.'

The former Welsh Guards officer has a delicate line to tread if he is to please both Mr Leigh and Mr Cormack. But the business of leadership is clearly on his mind, as he revealed in a reply to another Tory, Nicholas Winterton, concerned the Post Office could be 'a privatisation too far'.

'One of the responsibilities of being a Conservative and being in government . . . is that every so often you have to take decisions,' Mr Heseltine said. 'Sometimes they are lonely, but they can often be right. It is important to show a degree of leadership, often in matters where one can see the way the world is going, perhaps even in advance of what public opinion has yet understood.'