Poll defeat puts Major on sticky wicket

Inside Parliament
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John Major yesterday declared himself dug in for the political equivalent of a record final wicket stand as Tony Blair exploited the Conservatives' humiliation in the South East Staffordshire by-election.

With Brian Jenkins, the man who cut Mr Major's majority to just one, waiting in the wings to take his Commons seat, the first Question Time after the Easter recess was a romp for Labour.

Mr Blair repeatedly pressed the Prime Minister to explain the defeat then supplied his own answers - "People don't trust the Conservative Party any more" - while Mr Major failed to make much capital out of Labour's mixed messages on tax.

Clare Short, the Shadow transport secretary who dared to speak her mind, was on the Opposition front bench for the exchanges. Mr Major mischievously welcomed her to the chamber, saying he was delighted she had been "untied and ungagged" but went easy on her suggestion that those on pounds 34,000-plus should pay more to the Exchequer.

Mr Blair said the underlying reason for last Thursday's by-election defeat last was that people did not trust the Tories on railways, on tax, or on the health service - "and the sooner they get the chance to say so loud and clear the better for Britain".

Tory backbencher Geoffrey Clifton-Brown asked Mr Major about an article in the Sunday Express newspaper claiming Mr Blair had told journalists that the top rate of tax would be raised for those on pounds 30,000.

The figure was then raised to pounds 40,000 and subsequently denied altogether by Labour spin doctors, Mr Clifton-Brown said. But this gift was snatched from the Prime Minister's hands by Speaker Betty Boothroyd with a reminder that questions should be related to Government policy. Miss Boothroyd ruled out any answer.

It was left to former Tory cabinet minister Peter Brooke to offer Mr Major a refuge in an analogy from his favourite world of willow and leather. "Does the Prime Minister take encouragement from the fact that this summer at the Oval will see the 50th anniversary of the longest and largest stand for the last wicket in the history of English cricket?" asked Mr Brooke.

A Surrey supporter, Mr Major said he was aware of the anniversary. "I look forward certainly at the Oval to seeing many performances like that by Surrey, perhaps by England. And I have absolutely no doubt that politically we will see their equivalent."

Fortunately for the cheering Tories, nobody on the Opposition benches had a Wisden to hand. The record last wicket stand of 249 at the Oval in 1946 was scored by the opposition - by CT Sarwate and SN Banerjee playing for India against Surrey.

Labour was at least rattled during the second reading of the Broadcasting Bill as Virginia Bottomley highlighted the party's U-turn on cross-media ownership rules. Labour had lurched from "paranoid terror" to "sycophantic devotion" to media groups, the Heritage Secretary said.

The Bill eases restrictions on cross-media ownership and paves the way for digital television in Britain, but Mrs Bottomley said there was no commonsense justification for moving at one bound to wholesale deregulation.

Both the Mirror Group and Rupert Murdoch's News International are excluded from control of ITV companies, because each has more than 20 per cent of national newspaper circulation. But Lewis Moonie, Labour's broadcasting spokesman, has argued for an end to thresholds.