John Major, making his first appearance in the House of Commons as Britain’s new prime minister on Thursday--with Margaret Thatcher looking on from the back benches--insisted “I am my own man” after coming under renewed fire for his close political ties to his predecessor.
At the same time, Major was derided for not appointing a woman to his Cabinet, whose members he announced Wednesday. One of his campaign promises had been to find more jobs for women in his government.
It was a rough first day as the 47-year-old former chancellor of the exchequer faced Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock in his inaugural parliamentary debate as the country’s leader and was needled by other opposition members.
During the prime minister’s traditional “question time,” Major not only faced Kinnock, a veteran debater, but was mocked by Labor member of Parliament Robert Hughes, who cited the all-male Cabinet lineup and asked, “Is the only woman in the Cabinet the back-seat driver?”
This was a reference to a remark Thatcher made before Major’s selection as Conservative Party leader--a remark that many in the party soon regretted--that she would make a good “back-seat driver.” At the time, it was clear that Major was her favored candidate.
After Hughes’ comment, Major shot back, “I am my own man. I do not need to beat my chest and tell the honorable gentleman. Let him see what we will do.”
The new Cabinet is England’s first since 1964--and the only one in Western Europe today--to have no woman. Thatcher began her Cabinet career as education secretary in the government of Edward Heath.
A few hours after the parliamentary debate, at 10 Downing St., Major announced the appointment of Gillian Patricia Shephard, a member of Commons, as a treasury minister, a job under Cabinet rank. Shephard, who becomes the first woman to fill a senior post in that important department, said she considered her appointment “a vote of confidence in women.”
During Major’s brief clashes with Kinnock in the crowded parliamentary chamber, the new prime minister promised a thorough review of the controversial local poll tax, which has replaced private property taxes.
When the 48-year-old Kinnock pushed him to abolish the poll tax, Major coolly pointed out that in 1980 Kinnock roundly condemned the property tax system as the “most unjust of all taxes.”
That drew murmurs from the Conservative backbenchers, who were happy to see Major apparently holding his own in his first performance against Kinnock.
Thatcher sat on a fourth-row rear bench for the first time in 29 years. By tradition, parliamentary members of the government and the opposition “shadow cabinet” sit on the front benches directly across from one another.
Former prime ministers are entitled to sit on the front bench “below the gangway,” but Thatcher chose to sit elsewhere--possibly because she otherwise would have been next to Ted Heath, whom she deposed as Tory leader in 1975 and who has never forgiven her.
The Parliament was in a raucous mood as the MPs filed in. When Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine, who led the fight against Thatcher that ultimately led to her resignation last week, strode into the chamber, a Labor MP shouted: “Good afternoon, Judas!”
And as Major himself entered, the left-wing Laborite and parliamentary wit Dennis Skinner called out: “Resign!”
Major smiled and replied, “Wait a while.”
Among his other comments Thursday, the prime minister said he hopes to see President Bush “this side of Christmas.”
By and large, parliamentary correspondents noted that Major seemed nervous at first but began to relax and, overall, performed well.