Major refuses to be baited on poll tax in his first session as prime minister

November 30, 1990|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- Prime Minister John Major confronted Labor opposition leader Neil Kinnock for the first time across the aisle of the House of Commons yesterday in the debut of the new political trial of strength now engaged here.

Margaret Thatcher MP, reduced overnight to the back benches of the House of Commons, watched from an aisle seat on the fourth row from which she delivered her maiden parliamentary speech 30 years ago, as the two men who will contest the next general election squared off.

Opinion polls showed that overnight the Conservatives under Mr. Major had stolen an 11 percentage-point lead over Labor under Mr. Kinnock, dramatically reversing the popularity advantage the opposition had held for the past year.

Mr. Kinnock, who was routinely savaged by Mrs. Thatcher during their twice-weekly confrontations at Prime Minister's Question Time, rose smiling to try to bait his new adversary.

Congratulations were in order and duly delivered, followed by the brief but barbed question: "Since my Right Honorable Friend says he was 'bounced' into the poll tax, is he now going to abolish it?"

Mr. Kinnock was trying to hit the Conservative Party leader where he is most vulnerable.

The wildly unpopular poll, or head, tax, introduced by Mrs. Thatcher to replace the property tax, is a flat levy on everyone over 18 years old and is earmarked for funding local services.

The Tories prefer to call it a "community charge." However labeled, it has created mass outrage, and all three candidates in the struggle to replace Mrs. Thatcher promised to review it.

Mr. Major, 47, stood his ground at the parliamentary dispatch box, deliberately set more than a sword-length away from the opposition benches to avoid bloodshed in the more violent past.

"We have decided to look again and see what further refinement may be necessary to the community charge . . . to ensure [it] is accepted throughout the country," he said, to jeers from the Labor benches.

Mr. Kinnock offered some "well-intentioned" help: "The Right Honorable Gentleman could save himself a great deal of time and trouble, and the British people a great deal of money, by accepting Labor Party policy and abolishing the poll tax right now."

Mr. Major refused to be rattled. The Tory review would be fundamental, fair and thorough, and would include consideration of all opinions, he said. "On this side of the House we believe in looking at the facts before reaching conclusions," he added.

The Labor leader persisted that the only fundamental and fair thing to do with the poll tax was "to scrap it." The Tory leader responded by reminding his opponent that in 1980 Mr. Kinnock had described the old property tax system as "the most unjust of all taxes locally raised, which took most from those who have least."

It was hardly a fireworks display. There was none of the venom that poisoned and at the same time enlivened so many Thatcher-Kinnock exchanges, but Mr. Major is more known for competence than combativeness.

The Question Time followed the first meeting of Mr. Major's all-male Cabinet, and one MP wanted to know why there was no woman among the top leaders of government for the first time in 25 years.

Was the only woman to be "the back-seat driver"? This was a reference to Mrs. Thatcher's assertion in a farewell speech to party workers earlier in the week that while her hands would no longer be on the levers of power, she would be a "very good back-seat driver."

Women had advanced in many sectors of the country in recent years, Mr. Major said. "As those women would wish it to be, they will reach the top on merit."

Mr. Major later announced a list of junior ministers. Only one of them was a woman: Gillian Shephard, 50, at the Treasury.

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