Ffion's fingers crossed on Ashdown successor Lib Dem leader's race is odds-on to bore MPs

The Week In Westminster

NOMINATIONS FOR the leader of the Liberal Democrats finally close on Monday at noon. Six MPs have thrown their hats into the ring with the feisty Jackie Ballard (Taunton), who was only elected in 1997, emerging as the main "stop Charles Kennedy" contender.

Pressure is building on the other candidates, David Rendel (Newbury), Simon Hughes (Southwark North and Bermondsey), Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) and Don Foster (Bath) to think again and some may withdraw their names, permitted under the rules, by 4pm on Monday.

Postal ballot papers are not issued to the party's 90,000 members until 12 July and the result will not be known until 7 August. Such an interminably long campaign risks boring Westminster rigid and most commentators assume that Mr Kennedy will win.

While he may gain votes from "armchair" party members who simply pay a subscription, Mrs Ballard is gaining ground among the activists and local councillors. Like the Tories' Ann Widdecombe, she was the darling of last year's annual conference successfully leading a grassroots rebellion against the party establishment on education policy.

The keenest observer, but keeping her own counsel, is William Hague's wife Ffion. The seating plan for state banquets means she nearly always ends up sitting next to the Liberal Democrat leader.

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IT WAS a bad week for the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who came to the Commons to apologise that because of technical defects in the drafting of the Prevention of Terrorism Continuance Orders in 1998 and 1999 certain provisions have not been in force since March last year. As a result, one person on bail awaiting trial for offences under the legislation has had his indictment quashed.

Mr Straw looked uncomfortable as his predecessor, Michael Howard, enjoying his debut on the Tory back benches, offered his sympathy for the Home Secretary's predicament. In a reference to the several occasions when Mr Howard was held by the courts to have been acting unlawfully, Mr Straw admitted that, "I have now become a fully paid up member of the Home Secretary Club".

Emergency legislation was subsequently rushed through the Commons by an unusually embarrassed and incoherent Mr Straw who was viewed with pity by opposition MPs.

THE DECISION of the former Tory cabinet minister, Sir Michael Forsyth, to put on his ermine robes and accept a peerage does not necessarily mean that he has given up front-line politics. Although now a successful banker working for Flemings, where he started at the bottom after his election defeat in 1997 by studying for his professional examinations with the twentysomething yuppies at night-school, he has kept on good terms with William Hague. The two were close when they were respectively Welsh and Scottish secretaries and he is expected to be offered a place in the Shadow Cabinet.

His political heroes, the crossbench peer Lord Harris of High Cross and Baroness Thatcher - who were responsible for his conversion to the Tory cause aftera brief flirtation with the Labour Party while still at school - are expected to be his sponsors when he is introduced into the Lords next month.

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THE FORMER Tory housing minister and prominent Europhile, David Curry, (Skipton and Ripon) who resigned last year from William Hague's Shadow Cabinet, has been putting his time to good use much to the annoyance of lobbying companies.

In a book published for the Chartered Institute of Housing he has written a comprehensive guide Lobbying Government from the perspective of a minister on the receiving end of lobbying. Mr Curry cuts through the thickets of government with an insider's view of how to influence civil servants, ministers and political parties without recourse to expensive PR companies. Among his recommendations are "Ten Commandments" which include "do not assume the minister has read the brief" and "never, but never say: `It'll only cost a tiny bit of money"'.

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ATTEMPTS BY The Independent's Colin Brown, chairman of the Parliamentary Lobby Journalists, to improve relations with MPs have been rebuffed by Marion Roe, (Con Broxbourne) chairman of the secretive Administration Select Committee. Mr Brown was seeking to reach an understanding whereby lobby journalists could, once again, have access to the Commons Terrace without first being accompanied by an MP - as happened for years. Mrs Roe states that: "It was the committee's unanimous view that unless journalists can prove that they can be trusted to behave responsibly the access regulations should continue to be enforced vigorously".

Just four members of the nine-strong committee attended. Jane Kennedy (Lab Liverpool Wavertree), David Crausby (Lab Bolton NE), Nick Palmer (Lab Broxtowe) and William Ross (UUP Londonderry E), all backed Mrs Roe.

But since MPs do not attend much in the Chamber or circulate in the Members' Lobby, which is the formal area for talking to journalists, they can hardly complain now if their views go unreported.

The committee's decisions are rarely put to the Commons for approval although a rare exception occurred last month when Mrs Roe's proposal to charge the public pounds 6 to tour the House during the summer recess was soundly rejected.

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WHEN THE Prime Minister, cabinet ministers or MPs bunk off from Parliament they do not have to ask anyone's formal permission. Not so, the Speaker. For Ms Boothroyd to attend the opening of the Scottish Parliament, next Thursday, it was necessary for the Leader of the House, Margaret Beckett, to lay a formal motion "that the Speaker has leave of absence..." Mean- spirited MPs who have not been called recently could have debated the motion and called a vote to deny Betty her day off. Fortunately, nobody dared.

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