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Portillo counters 'arrogance' accusation

MICHAEL PORTILLO yesterday defended the Government against a charge of 'arrogance' by Sir Edward Heath, the former Conservative Prime Minister, with conciliatory noises about the unions, writes Colin Brown.

The Thatcherite Secretary of State for Employment said he was ready to speak to John Monks, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress. He denied he had decided to seek a new employment Bill to ban strikes in essential public services, including the railways.

Mr Portillo tried to dispel the impression that his appointment by John Major, replacing the left-of-centre David Hunt at the Department of Employment, would herald a new assault on the unions.

He rejected a charge by Sir Edward in the News of the World that he had shown arrogance by 'laying down details of those to whom he will speak and those to whom he will not'.

Mr Portillo was backed by Michael Heseltine, the President of the Board of Trade. 'You get these retired politicians . . . they always produce phrases that get them headlines but they do not have much impact on public opinion,' Mr Heseltine said on BBC radio.

However, Sir Edward's remarks may strike a chord with voters swinging to Labour under Tony Blair. In an outspoken attack on Mr Major for promoting one of the anti-Maastricht 'bastards', Sir Edward also took the Prime Minister to task for not sacking another Euro-doubter, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary.