And Idiot of the Week is...

The Week In Westminster
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The Independent Online
THE CONFLICT in the Balkans threatened to spill over into outright war between the Government and the Conservatives when the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, clashed with his shadow, Michael Howard. Mr Cook was forced to apologise to Mr Howard for falsely accusing him of failing to condemn Serbian atrocities. But Mr Howard emerged the victor after a bruising assault on Nato's alleged incompetence in bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

Ironically, since announcing his intention to step down from the Shadow Cabinet, Mr Howard has had "a good war", successfully walking the tightrope between patriotic support for Nato's campaign and the need to ask searching questions about its conduct. The row threatened the traditional consensus agreed between the main parties whenever British troops are deployed overseas. The Prime Minister's press secretary, Alastair Campbell, and the Tory chairman, Michael Ancram, engaged in a war of words that looked certain to pave the way for a verbal battle between Mr Blair and the Leader of the Opposition.

Tempers cooled before Prime Minister's questions, however, with Mr Blair and Mr Hague tiptoeing across eggshells towards a fragile truce. The Tory front bench knows its backbench support for the war is soft. Circumstances may yet enable the Tories to break out of the straitjacket of their support for an indefinite bombing campaign.


WHILE LIBERAL Democrats in Edinburgh were enjoying playing coalition government games for real, their Westminster counterparts engaged in petty debating games, with David Heath (Somerton & Frome) grasping the mantle of idiot of the week. Mr Heath and his colleagues abused an opposition supply day to debate the effectiveness or otherwise of the Tory opposition.

What started as a jolly jape ended up unifying the Tories and giving Mr Ancram, the chance to enhance his reputation as one to watch in any manoeuvrings on the future of the Tory leadership.

Perhaps forgetting the support given to Tony Blair by Paddy Ashdown, Mr Heath accused the Tories of "giving this Government an easy ride" - and thereby drew gasps of hilarity and ridicule all round.

While the Tory opposition has left much to be desired over recent months, the Liberal Democrats have raised expediency to an art form. Mr Ancram responded tartly, accusing them of being "so firmly in bed with the Labour Party that they have become a shapeless lump under the Government's duvet".

John Gummer, the former Tory Environment Secretary, also put the boot into the Liberal Democrats, tabling a motion exposing David Rendel (Newbury) for sitting on the fence on a proposal to build Vodafone's new headquarters on a greenfield site in Newbury.

Mr Rendel has told his constituents that a parliamentary convention stops MPs from commenting on planning issues in their constituencies. Mr Gummer pointed out that, as a minister, he had queues of Liberal Democrat MPs supporting or opposing various planning applications, and that he himself spoke at a public inquiry against the proposal to build the Sizewell B nuclear power station.


CUTBACKS IN the Labour Party headquarters have plumbed new depths. A memo, copied to the general secretary's office, has gone out cancelling the croissants supplied for the weekly managers' meeting.

"We will still require coffee and tea but needn't go to the expense of having this supplied by Ponti's," it primly declares.