PM has eye on taxing role for Waldegrave

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Indy Politics
In as firm a job guarantee as any Cabinet minister is likely to get, John Major yesterday told the Commons that his Scott-damaged Chief Secretary, William Waldegrave, would be presenting the Government's tax plans from the Despatch Box after the general election.

Fallout from the Scott report dominated Question Time. The Prime Minister insisted charges levelled against ministers in the arms-to-Iraq affair had been "laid to rest". But Tony Blair harried him, arguing that until he accepted Scott's criticism of ministers, the Tories would remain "knee deep in dishonour".

The Labour leader repeatedly challenged Mr Major on whether he accepted Sir Richard Scott's finding that the failure of three ministers not to tell Parliament about a relaxation in the guidelines on the sale of non- lethal equipment to Iraq was "deliberate and in breach of their duty of ministerial accountability".

Mr Major said Sir Richard had accepted that ministers believed there was not a change of guidelines but an "interpretation of guidelines against changed circumstances". "What Sir Richard says is that the reason for the decision not to inform was because of concern that to do so, and I quote, 'might be detrimental to British trading interests'. That is to say, jobs."

But Mr Blair replied: "That is simply not the case. Sir Richard gives specifically the reason why they did not tell Parliament and the public. He said: 'the overriding and determinative reason was a fear of strong public opposition...'."

Rounding on jeering Tory backbenchers, Mr Blair said the affair went "to the heart of parliamentary democracy. On virtually every page of this report there are details of answers that are inaccurate, untrue, misleading. Is no one going to take responsibility for this? Have none of them got the courage?" Sweeping the questions aside, Mr Major replied: "Mr Blair huffs and puffs with false indignation." If he had "a shred of honesty" he would admit that the central charges levelled at the Government had been found to be untrue and should be withdrawn.

Paddy Ashdown got brusque treatment when he said that in no other organisation would an executive criticised in the same terms as ministers had by Scott have been allowed to hang on their job. "Once again the Liberal Democrat leader resorts to his old tactic of partial understanding," Mr Major said.

Labour backbencher George Foulkes elicited a more intriguing answer when he suggested "that since Mr Waldegrave has repeatedly given inaccurate and misleading information to Parliament and to the public, he is the ideal man to present the Tory party tax plans at the next election".

As the laughter subsided, Mr Major said Mr Foulkes might be "interested to know that Mr Waldegrave will also be presenting our tax plans from this Despatch Box after the next election".

Mr Waldegrave will be interested to know it too. Was it a bankable promise? And isn't presenting tax plans - or Budgets - the job of the Chancellor?

The "obnoxious" newspaper tactic of paying informants for revealing the private lives of princesses and paupers would be outlawed under a Journalistic Corrupt Practices Bill given a first reading. Quentin Davies, Tory MP for Stamford and Spalding, said a section of the tabloid press had travelled so far down this "unattractive road" that Parliament had to act. However, Mr Davies's Bill is unlikely to reach the statute book.