Labour finds home for election barbs

Inside Parliament 'Is the Deputy PM's job to take the decisions - or haven't you decided yet?'
Click to follow
Aless than subtle suggestion by John Redwood that the Government should take on board some of his right-wing agenda was politely ignored by the Prime Minister yesterday.

Mr Redwood took the first available opportunity at Questions to publicly congratulate John Major on retaining the Tory leadership. "May I assure him that, like him, I wish to see a Conservative election victory," said the former Secretary of State for Wales. "And would the Prime Minister agree with me that some of the ideas and policies that I set out in the last few weeks could make an important contribution to that victory."

Mr Major expressed gratitude for the congratulations but ignored the rider. "There is a great deal the Government will be doing in the months ahead which I know Mr Redwood will wish to support enthusiastically."

Tony Blair applied a little salt. "Can I offer my congratulations to the Prime Minister on his re-election, with, I suspect, rather more sincerity than Mr Redwood. And of course, I congratulate him on his new deputy as well." Michael Heseltine, First Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister, sat smiling by Mr Major's side.

In various forms, Mr Major's mantra was that Labour would still be in opposition after the general election and he would still be Prime Minister. Tory backbenchers attacked Labour as "inexperienced and fatuous".

However, not all Conservatives appear as sanguine as their leader. Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, highlighted the search by some for safer constituencies in the wake of boundary changes. "Is the Prime Minister's advice to your colleagues who have majorities of less than 18,000 - retreat now, abandon your voters, because it is 'no change, no chance'," Mr Flynn asked, deploying Mr Redwood's campaign slogan.

As the laughter subsided, Mr Major retorted: "I seem to recall rather arrogant remarks like that before the last general election and yet the people who behaved in such an arrogant fashion are still sitting on the Opposition benches."

But Nick Ainger, Labour MP Pembroke, twisted the knife. Recalling Mr Redwood's description of Mr Major's leadership style as "uncertainty based on indecision", he asked: "Is it the new job of the Deputy Prime Minister to take the decisions - or haven't you decided yet?"

"There is often rough invective during elections," Mr Major replied, quoting a Labour MP's description of the Blair-Prescott contest. However, the attempt to paper over the cracks made little impact and the jeers were only halted by the Speaker's shout of "time's up".

Reshuffles can bring about a form of culture shock for uprooted ministers. On Wednesday, Douglas Hogg was waxing grandly on events in the Middle East. Back at the Despatch Box less than 24 hours later he was affecting detailed knowledge of the price of milk quotas.

Mr Hogg was congratulated from all parts of the House on his promotion to Minister for Agriculture - all parts, that is, except Dennis Skinner. The Beast of Bolsover claimed that the minister's predecessor, William Waldegrave, had "whined and whinged" about being penned up with his European counterparts agreeing that sheep and cattle could travel for up to 31 hours. "How would this Hogg like to be penned up for 31 hours?" he demanded.

Mr Hogg thought it "extraordinarily curmudgeonly" not give credit where credit was due for the limits on animal transport times. "For the past five and a half years I have been answering questions of a fairly statesman- like character. I now come back, I see, to the cockpit."