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The Vote of Confidence: Smith speech rubs salt in Tory wounds

FORMER LEADERS of the Conservative Party would be 'turning in their graves' at what was being done in the name of their party, said John Smith, the Labour leader, as he rubbed salt into the Prime Minister's wounds with a masterly parliamentary performance. In order to survive John Major had been forced to threaten his own party with 'electoral suicide'.

Mr Smith said the tactic of employing a 'quasi motion of confidence' was a display of weakness. 'The Prime Minister lost the argument in a House in which he has a clear overall majority, on the most important aspect of his legislative programme . . . on which he stamped his own personal design and authority. As a result of his failure, he has been forced to make a humiliating threat to his own party that, unless they come into the Government lobby, he will press the self-destruct button of a general election, which he and they know would result in a massive defeat . . .'

Mr Smith said he would welcome a general election. 'I think we should put the matter speedily to the test. If the Government thinks it has got the right policies and the support of the people, it has nothing to fear.'

He recalled Mr Major's declaration, after securing the opt- outs at Maastricht, that it was 'game, set and match' to the United Kingdom. 'Nineteen months later, after endless foot- faults, double faults and mishits, he was struggling with a tie- break, and, like some petulant tennis prima donna . . . threatening to take his racket away.'

The Prime Minister seemed unware of the contradiction at the heart of his European policy, Mr Smith said. The more he argued for Britain to be involved in Europe, the more he exposed the 'sheer absurdity' of the opt- out, giving Britain no influence over matters of great concern.

There was constant reference to managing directors and senior executives but no thought at all to millions of working people. The Tory party was becoming 'the redoubt of the privileged elite'.

Tory interventions were dismissed with witty ease, not least one from Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, who pointed to concern throughout Europe about structural unemployment and rising social costs on employers. 'Mr Clarke's speech was a little bit more effective than the Prime Minister's,' Mr Smith offered, but added, to laughter: 'Let us reflect on the result he wants in the division lobbies.'

Mr Major had tried to 'duck and weave' to evade a vote on the Social Chapter throughout the deliberations on the European Communities (Amendment) Bill. But the 'ticking time bomb' had blown up, 'not only wiping the smug smiles off the face of the Tory whips, but destroying the Prime Minister's credibility and authority'.

When it came to the crunch the Government had been prepared to do and say anything to get out of its latest self-constructed humiliation, Mr Smith said. Policy on the exchange rate mechanism had changed to get one Tory - Nicholas Winterton - into the Government lobby. What other 'shady deals' had been stitched up?

'All this from a Prime Minister who had the gall to talk about 'cynical alliances' . . . Sometimes I think when John Major selects a weapon, it is the boomerang he finds most convenient.'