Major rejects 'fantasy' of drawn knives

Inside Parliament
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John Major shrugged off as "fantasy" yesterday the latest bout of Westminster speculation that he might stand down if the Tories receive a thrashing in tomorrow's council elections.

Talk of leadership ambitions stirring again in the breast of Michael Heseltine provided Labour backbenchers and Paddy Ashdown with useful ammunition for the last Question Time before polling day.

Mike O'Brien asked the Prime Minister if he had "ever discussed an understanding whereby if the Conservatives do not do well in the local government elections, he will make way for the Deputy Prime Minister?" The Warwickshire North MP said Mr Major would have the support of "at least half" of Tory MPs and every Labour member to stay on.

The Prime Minister cannot be seen as taking leadership questions seriously, yet too much scorn might suggest the questioner had hit a nerve. The reply was standard Major. "I suspect the honourable gentleman is in mischief- making mode," he said. Then, as Tory MPs shook their heads, he added: "Clearly he wasn't in mischief-making mode. Clearly he was just being silly."

Mr Ashdown said it would understand that it would be "totally unacceptable" if, once again, Conservative MPs should seek to change the Prime Minister while denying the country the chance to change the Government. "Will Mr Major therefore confirm that if after Thursday they seek to get rid of him, he will make sure that we have a chance to get rid of them?" the Liberal Democrat leader asked.

Of course Mr Major would confirm no such thing. "I fear Mr Ashdown is dealing in fantasy again," he replied.

George Foulkes, Labour MP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, told the Prime Minister it was not just Mr Heseltine who was after his job. "It's the Home Secretary [Michael Howard] and the Health Secretary [Stephen Dorrell] as well," Mr Foulkes said.

Tony Blair focused on a leaked Home Office document showing that, contrary to Mr Howard's claims, crime has been rising since September - figures Mr Major said were not correct. But the Labour leader also included some election lines. "People are less safe in their homes, less secure in their jobs, less confident about the future. It is precisely because of that weakness and failure and incompetence that people will be so justified in punishing your party this Thursday," he said. Mr Major dismissed the remarks as "a long time coming and not worth waiting for".

The most naked of Mr Major's rivals, John Redwood, had bounced up earlier during environment questions to do his bit for the Tory election cause. "Thursday matters and people must vote Conservative for lower taxes," the former Secretary of State for Wales said.

John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, had the figures. "It costs pounds 225 a year more to have a Labour council than it does to have a Conservative council," he said.

But Labour alleged support for councils was "skewed" to help Tory-controlled Westminster City Council. Hilary Armstrong, an Opposition spokeswoman, said that if the same level of support was given to Trafford council tax payers would get a pounds 527 refund, pounds 320 in Rochdale or pounds 145 in Oldham. It was a "fiddle" and the voters knew it.