Who's for a game of Question Time chairs?

Inside Parliament
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John Major had an uncomfortable Question Time yesterday as he tried to get round the words of his Chancellor denying that a single currency is "some threat to the nation state".

Tony Blair repeatedly put Kenneth Clarke's view to the Prime Minister, and asked whether he agreed. But Mr Major would not say.

To hoots of derision from Labour MPs, he insisted the Cabinet was "utterly united" in its approach to a single currency. And in a gift to Mr Blair which left Tory backbenchers looking glum, he again suggested it was Labour leader's role to answer questions.

"I'm delighted Mr Major keeps asking me questions," Mr Blair said. "It will put him in good practise. Let me make him an offer. Instead of the twice-weekly Prime Minister's Questions, one day a week we will move over there and let him ask questions."

Mr Major said Mr Blair would "be wise not to misunderstand" what the Chancellor had said in his Daily Telegraph interview yesterday - not that there appeared any ambiguity in Mr Clarke's assertion.

Pointing up Labour differences, he told MPs that deputy leader John Prescott had declared himself "not a fan of a single currency", while industry spokesman Jack Cunningham was "personally in favour" of one. "Would Mr Blair care to adjudicate between the two?"

But after chiding the Prime Minister over who asks the questions, Mr Blair returned to the point: "This is his Chancellor of the Exchequer. He has said in clear terms that a single currency is not a threat to the nation state. Does he agree or not?"

Mr Major would not be drawn. "I will answer in my own way," he said and embarked on a complex passage about Mr Blair's own shifts on European Union.

In his [1983] election address Mr Blair said he was opposed to membership of the EU, then later said that within the closed doors of the Labour Party he disagreed with its policy on Europe. "What is Mr Blair now saying within the closed doors of the Labour Party and why will he not say it in public?"

But Mr Blair replied that MPs could now see why the Prime Minister had "asked the Cabinet for a vow of silence" on the issue. "One very simple question remains: if he cannot trust his Cabinet and his Chancellor on these critical economic and foreign policy issues, why on earth should the people of Britain trust him or them to govern the country?"

Mr Major said the Government had made it clear it would decide in the light of the circumstances prevailing whether it was appropriate to join a single currency. "The Cabinet are utterly united on that point and reinforced that unity this morning, he will be pleased to know."

As Question Time drew to an end, Derek Fatchett delighted fellow Labour backbenchers - though not his party leader - by suggesting Mr Major behaved as if bribed to "throw" PMQs.

The Leeds Central MP asked: "Given the widespread concern about corruption and bribery in sport, and the rumours that games are being thrown for money, will the Prime Minister confirm that his regular performances at the despatch box against Mr Blair are simply a reflection of his ability and that he has not been bribed in any way by the Labour Party?" The question was dismissed with disdain.

Speaker Betty Boothroyd warned she would be listening carefully at next week's PMQs ready to pounce if Tory backbenchers persisted in "hissing" at Mr Blair as he entered the chamber.

Reptilian hissing has been common in recent years at Conservative Party conferences - usually directed at EU institutions, Tory Europhiles, Jacques Delors and certain Labour frontbenchers.

Backbenchers customarily give their respective leaders a cheer on entry a few minutes before 3.15pm. But last Tuesday and yesterday some Tories greeted Mr Blair with hissing and forced laughter. Replying to a point of order raised by Neil Gerrard, Labour MP for Walthamstow, Miss Boothroyd said she "certainly deprecated that sort of behaviour" and promised to put a stop to it.

The Ulster Unionist MP Roy Beggs caused dismay on the Government benches with a bitter accusation of betrayal over proposals for Northern Ireland's future.

In Question Time exchanges, James Molyneaux, leader of the Ulster Unionists, warned Sir Patrick Mayhew not to threaten to call the bluff of Northern Ireland's representatives - a tactic which, he said, had failed disastrously in the past.

Sir Patrick said it was "not a question of calling anybody's bluff", but of inviting all the constitutional parties to state their views on the framework document drawn up by London and Dublin, so as to get the parties round the table.

Unconvinced, Mr Beggs, MP for Antrim East, asked why Ulster Unionists should not question his integrity and that of the Prime Minister. "We feel we have not only been deceived but we have been betrayed. We perceive there has been capitulation to pan-nationalism and to IRA thugs ..."

But Seamus Mallon of the nationalist SDLP added a wry reminder of something he said Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major had in common. "They've all gone ahead above the Unionists, they [the Unionists] say, they have all sold out unionism, they say, and they have all tried to create a united Ireland against the wishes of the people of the north of Ireland ... would that were so."