A Week In WEstminter: Faint odour of a book being Cooked

The Week In Westminster

IT WAS a bad week for the Foreign Office chief mandarin Sir John Kerr, the principal casualty of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report, which concluded he was deemed to have "failed in his duties to ministers".

But the lingering suspicion among most Tory MPs was that Sir John was the fall guy for Robin Cook and they are determined not to let the matter rest.

Former Tory Foreign Office ministers who worked closely with Sir John when he was the UK representative at the European Commission, briefing ministers during the negotiations on the Maastricht treaty, simply do not believe that he is capable of such incompetence.

The Government's determination to obfuscate and pre-empt the committee's early proceedings with its own internal inquiry lends credibility to this suspicion. For once, Michael Howard's relentless and forensic skills as a lawyer may yet uncover the possibility that Sir John has been less than fairly treated by Mr Cook.

The definition of diplomats representing the Foreign Office in previous centuries was based on a premise that "a diplomat is an honest man paid to go abroad to lie for his country". While there is no evidence to support the suggestion that Sir John may have gone to the Select Committee to lie for his Foreign Secretary, some Tory MPs think that he may well have gone under orders to withhold all the truth.

Mr Cook spent the week well out of the way abroad leaving Tony Blair to denounce the report before it had been officially published. But the illogical position of ministers in refusing to accept its findings or to even contemplate taking further action suggests that there is a relentless determination to keep the lid firmly closed on this affair.

Tories should use one of their Opposition Days to secure a debate on the report and ensure that every former Foreign Office minister on their side, beginning with John Major, nails the Foreign Secretary.

MORE TROUBLE for the Foreign Office came with the flare-up over Gibraltar. Here ministers may be on safer ground in blaming officials. Mandarins down the years have hated the last vestiges of empire in the Falklands, Hong Kong and Gibraltar, which have got in the way of their pursuit of friendly relations with Argentina, China and Spain.

The early-warning signal of an encouragement to sell-out comes when the Foreign Office surreptitiously uses the language of the aggressor in formal papers. Michael Fallon (C, Sevenoaks) in a parliamentary question two days before the latest incident, was prescient when he asked the Foreign Office minister Joyce Quin when the Bay of Gibraltar was first described as the Bay of Algeciras in a paper laid before Parliament? Ms Quin replied: "I understand that both terms have been used in public documents in the past."

WILLIAM HAGUE'S waste of time seeking advice and electoral solace in North America looks like turning into a PR disaster. With criticism for accepting a donation for the trip from a tax exile swirling about his ears he is merely highlighting the difficulties of being recognised. Day one resulted in bemused Harlem residents not knowing who he was and leading detractors to dub him "Hague the Harlem Globetrotter". Governor George W Bush of Texas was looking forward to Mr Hague's visit under the mistaken impression that he was the former US Secretary of State, Al Haig.

My advice is to stay at home and take the splendidly objective Labour MP, Bob Marshall-Andrews (Medway), out to a decent lunch. Mr Marshall-Andrews, who seems to have a soft spot for Mr Hague, genuinely believes in good, effective opposition to Mr Blair - providing decent quantities of it himself.

As a barrister, he believes Mr Hague is on the right track but spoils his Commons performances at Question Time by adding too many comments to the questions. Mr Hague would then be following a fine tradition of former Tory leaders taking advice from their opponents. Harold Macmillan said Lloyd George gave him the best advice - stick to one point or one question.

TONY BENN was in exuberant and impish mood after a week in which he was feted by fellow parliamentarians. First he attended an unveiling of a portrait of himself in the Parliament Street office block of MPs. Afterwards he attended the House Magazine/Channel 4 "Oscars" to receive the Speechmaker of the Year award from the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd. As befits a true democrat the award was decided on the votes of fellow MPs from all parties. To general approbation, Mr Benn said: "To catch the Speaker's eye is one thing; to do it with the approval of the House of Commons is unheard of."

During the proceedings Mr Benn spied Charlie Whelan, whom he had never met. But he courteously declined an offer to be introduced. "No thank you, I once met Gordon Brown and that was quite sufficient."

Taken more seriously than ever before, MPs on all sides are beginning to warm to Mr Benn's latest proposal contained in a Bill he is shortly to present to the Commons, transferring the crown prerogatives exercised by the Prime Minister over to the control of Parliament. Most prime ministerial power is not actually accountable to Parliament as it is exercised on behalf of the sovereign. Mr Benn thinks that his Bill is the most practical way of halting the slide to a presidential system of government.

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL may be celebrating his suggestion that politicians be allowed to broadcast their views, unedited, without interpretation by journalists or interruptions by rude interviewers. But the Labour MP Paul Flynn (Newport West), yesterday took Mr Campbell at his word and launched the most comprehensive website of any MP. Already containing over 500 pages, Mr Flynn promises to add 2,000 words a week. Mr Flynn offers a large collation of political anecdotes entitled "Tales of the Terrace". Mr Flynn's views on politicians are indexed into two categories: "Turkeys" or "Heroes". For weekend fun call www.paulflynn.co.uk. Check to see whether Mr Campbell is a turkey and why.

THERESA MAY (C, Maidenhead), Lembit Opik (LD, Montgomeryshire) and Stephen Twigg (Lab, Enfield Southgate) were nominated at the House Magazine/ Channel 4 ceremony for the Rising Star award but were beaten by Oona King (Lab, Bethnal Green & Bow). Maybe they still have work to do on their constituency profiles. Some Maidenhead electors, shown a selection of famous faces, thought Patricia Routledge was their MP. Constituents in Montgomeryshire thought the picture they were shown of the computer entrepreneur Bill Gates was Mr Opik while Southgate voters, when asked to identify Stephen Twigg, pointed to the photo of Michael Portillo.

THE APPARENT snub by the African National Congress after this newspaper's revelations that Peter Mandelson was expecting to provide advice on election strategy in South Africa means it is back to the drawing board on how to fill his time. The red carpet appeared to be rolled out for him this week when he made a regal visit to Labour Party HQ at Millbank Tower with the party general secretary, Margaret McDonough. Is he about to return to the dark shadows once again?

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