Atlee admiration from Russell

THE Commons was treated yesterday to one of those rare occasions when a Liberal Democrat MP tried to out-Labour the Prime Minister by claiming he wasn't socialist enough.

By Graham Dines

THE Commons was treated yesterday to one of those rare occasions when a Liberal Democrat MP tried to out-Labour the Prime Minister by claiming he wasn't socialist enough.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the MP in question was Colchester's Bob Russell, a former Labour parliamentary candidate, who worked himself into a frenzy by shouting across the Chamber that Tony Blair should "contrast the performance of his government with the achievements of the Atlee government" which he said were "real achievements by a real Labour government."

As his front bench looked more than somewhat bemused, Mr Russell ploughed on: "The Atlee government built 1,000 council houses a week – New Labour has only achieved 3,000 in six years." Britain was suffering the worst housing crisis for a generation – "there are hundreds of thousands of children living in adequate accommodation this Christmas" he bellowed.

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Replying, the Prime Minister forgot Mr Russell's former Labour credentials, wrongly congratulating the Colchester MP on his early career move in joining the Liberal Democrats rather than the Labour Party.

Mr Blair believed Clement Atlee would have been proud of the present government's achievements in creating 1½million extra jobs, lifting 500,000 children out of poverty, and its record in health and education.

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Whether Mr Russell, one time Labour's voice in Colchester, ever met Clem Atlee in his youth, I don't know – suffice it to say he probably knows more about socialism than the Prime Minister, who is the public school educated son of a Conservative supporter.

As all political historians will tell you – sadly Tony Blair does not fall into this category – Mr Russell was so proud of Atlee's achievements that he stood as the party's parliamentary candidate for the Suffolk seat of Sudbury and Woodbridge in 1974 and for Colchester in 1979, before joining the fledgling SDP which later teamed up with the Liberals.

At least Mr Russell was value for money compared to the performance of his own leader Charles Kennedy whom, I'm afraid to report, gave another less than adequate account of himself during Prime Minister's questions.

Mr Kennedy's big moan is that Mr Blair consistently and deliberately misrepresents how the Lib Dems would spend the cash raised by its plans for a 50p top rate of tax for everyone earning more than £100,000.

In the first Question Time of December, Mr Blair accused the Lib Dems of "dishonesty" for claiming that the cash raised by the tax rise would cover all their spending pledges. Labour chairman Ian McCartney has released a document listing 70 supposed Lib Dem promises which, he said, would cost far more than the extra £4.7 billion Mr Kennedy expects to raise from the new top rate.

Ominously for Mr Kennedy, the Prime Minister promised he would look in further detail at Mr Kennedy's tax and spend plans. "I'm very happy to return to the House on the next occasion with the details of those 70 commitments.

"I think the best thing is over the Christmas break, when we're not doing other things, we both have a look at your spending proposals and then let's discuss it again when we come back."

If Mr Kennedy sounded lame yesterday, Conservative leader Michael Howard was in perky form. When the Prime Minister kept questioning the Tory record before 1997, Mr Howard snapped: "Let me remind you this is Prime Minister's questions. I'll make you an offer: if you want me to answer the questions give me a slot every week for Leader of the Opposition's questions.

"I would be very pleased to do that. You can choose the day. Any day of the week, I would be very pleased to answer your questions. But just for the moment, you are still Prime Minister. It's my job to ask you questions and your duty to answer them."

Former Tory Iain Duncan Smith could never have achieved this level of banter with the PM. Unhappily for the Lib Dems, neither can Mr Kennedy.

Mr Howard claimed the Chancellor's Pre Budget report published last week showed public sector investment on schools, roads and hospitals had almost halved since 1997.

Yes, but . . . "We've got 25,000 extra teachers, 14,000 extra doctors, 9,000 extra police, 80,000 extra classroom assistants," retorted Mr Blair.

Battle resumes in the New Year.

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