Portillo leads Tory counter-attack: Thatcherite minister says back-to-basics critics spreading 'new British disease'

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE CHURCH, the monarchy and Parliament were warned to heed the 'back to basics' message last night by Michael Portillo, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, in a vitriolic attack on critics, who were blamed for bringing the Government to its lowest ebb.

Mr Portillo, seen as the Thatcherite young pretender for the Tory leadership, accused pessimists of spreading 'the new British disease - the self-destructive sickness of national cynicism'.

His attack was part of a co-ordinated offensive by the Cabinet to relaunch John Major's battered back to basics policy. 'Too many politicians, academics, churchmen, authors, commentators and journalists exhibit the full-blown symptoms of this new British disease,' Mr Portillo told the annual dinner of the Thatcherite Conservative Way Forward group.

''If Crown, Parliament and Church are not respected, neither will be law, judges or policemen, nor professors, nor teachers, nor social workers, nor bosses, managers or foremen. Social disorder follows when respect breaks down . . . A society in which people hold those in authority in contempt is set upon the road to disintegration.'

Mr Portillo accused Church leaders of 'political correctness' and criticised the Royal Family and Parliament. 'Those who advised the Royal Family to become more populist and more ordinary probably played into the hands of those who wanted to make of them soap opera or farce. Parliament was ill- advised to let in the TV cameras.'

But Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, denied the back to basics campaign was a moral crusade. 'Politicians should not set up as experts in the personal morality of others or claim some special entitlement to cast the first stone. The Prime Minister has consistently and rightly made this clear,' he told Tories in west Oxfordshire.

Five Cabinet ministers relaunched the campaign, including Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, who said it was 'absolutely critical to keep your nerve and not be panicked into losing your faith in your policies'.

But Mr Major and senior Cabinet colleagues were thrown back on the defensive after Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, said he would resign if the Scott inquiry criticised his role in the arms to Iraq affair.

It forced a similar commitment from Mr Heseltine, one of four ministers who, with Mr Clarke, signed public interest immunity certificates, which led to criticism that the Government was withholding vital Cabinet papers from the Matrix Churchill case. The case collapsed when the certificates were overruled by the trial judge.

Mr Major is due to give evidence to the inquiry on Monday. The Scott inquiry team said yesterday Mr Major would be questioned about his understanding of the guidelines on exports to Iran and Iraq; the briefing he received and answers he gave about the operation of the guidelines after he became Prime Minister; and the distribution and use of intelligence material during consideration of the Matrix Churchill licence applications.

Mr Clarke, who signed a certificate as Home Secretary, said on BBC Television's Question Time he would resign 'of course' if he was criticised by the Scott inquiry. Although it was a throwaway remark, it was seen as a hostage to fortune for Mr Clarke, regarded by many Tory MPs as a potential saviour, if Mr Major is forced to resign.

Letters, page 17