Question Time turns into a rowdy hustings session

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Prime Minister's Question Time turned into a rowdy hustings session yesterday, with the ever-loyal Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, insisting John Major would regain the Conservative Party leadership.

One backbencher, Emma Nicholson, used the exchanges to make a public pledge of loyalty to Mr Major while Tony Blair, the Labour leader, called for a general election.

The Prime Minister's sojourn at the Cannes summit brought Mr Newton to the fore. By happy coincidence for Mr Major, the man he chose as Leader of the Commons, and automatically his deputy for Question Time, is also a key member of his election campaign team - and not averse to using the Despatch Box for internal party politicking.

Labour too were intent on exploiting the leadership contest. First up was Keith Hill, MP for Streatham. Conveniently forgetting the straight hand-over of power from Wilson to Callaghan, he asked if Mr Newton agreed that if anyone other than the Prime Minister won "they will have no democratic legitimacy to govern because they won't have the consent of the people".

Mr Newton said the Conservatives had the democratic legitimacy of polling more votes in the last election than any party had ever achieved.

Mr Blair asked if Mr Newton had "any awareness not just of the despair but the disgust most people feel at the spectacle the Conservative Party has become.

"Isn't the real choice the British people want not one between the warring factions of that party but between a Conservative Party that is disintegrating and a Labour Party in touch with the people and ready to serve," Mr Blair said.

Tory MPs roared derision at the Labour leader and Mr Newton played the Monklands District Council card. The report alleging corruption and nepotism on the hitherto unheard-of Scottish council has been seized on by Conservatives with an enthusiasm born of desperation.

"They [Labour] certainly seem to be in touch with a lot of people in Monklands," Mr Newton replied.

Edward Garnier and Ms Nicholson then took the opportunity to back the Prime Minister. Ms Nicholson said her Torridge and West Devon constituency association, had asked her to vote for Mr Major - "which I shall do".

Mr Garnier said that in his Leicestershire constituency of Harborough unemployment had fallen and confidence in every sector of the economy was up - and it was "all down to the policies of the Prime Minister".