Parliament The Week In Westminster: Coe clings on tenaciously in Hague's kitchen cabinet

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The Independent Online
TORY TURMOIL inside William Hague's kitchen cabinet turned into a classic case of "shoot the messenger" with the abrupt dismissal of his press secretary, Gregor Mackay. Tory MPs raised their eyebrows in disbelief when they learnt that he has been replaced by Amanda Platell, recently fired as editor of what was The Express on Sunday, and who is not even a party member.

With the departure earlier this year of Charles Hendry and the exit before the next election of Mr Hague's speech- writer, George Osborne, because of his selection as candidate in Tatton, only Seb Coe will remain. But the pressure is on for a clean sweep to get even Mr Coe out of the office as well. Party bigwigs want to give Mr Coe the poisoned chalice of the Tory nomination for the Newark by-election (probably on 6 May). Listed the 25th most Labour marginal, the Tories need a swing of 2.9 per cent and in normal mid-term circumstances this would be a sure-fire Tory gain. Mr Coe faces stiff rivalry, however, from Richard Alexander, who represented Newark for 18 years until he was cheated by Fiona Jones's fraudulent victory.

FED UP with the official opposition letting government business through without a fight, Tory backbenchers, led by Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst), proved that even with depleted numbers a few determined desperadoes can give the Government a run for its money.

By employing parliamentary procedures that have fallen into disuse since the election, Mr Forth forced the Government into losing a day's business and the embarrassment of ramming the Local Government Bill (supposedly to extend local democracy) through the Commons with the undemocratic tactic of a guillotine motion. Caught on the hop with the unexpected opposition, government business managers were in a state of confusion. At first they moved a motion to allow the Bill to continue being debated after 10pm, yet 40 minutes later tried to adjourn proceedings - forgetting that such a motion was debatable for an hour with two divisions to follow. The Government ended up with a procedural mess, detaining Labour MPs from their cocoa for an extra unnecessary two hours.

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THE WEEK belonged to the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who took charge of Britain at war while Tony Blair was holed up in Berlin.

Prime Minister's Question Time provided a dummy run for Mr Prescott to do the job for real later in the day. His nerves jangled, initially, which caused several slips of the tongue. The most notable Prescott howler was that prisoners in Northern Ireland were being "exchanged". But he won the House over with a frank apology. "I made a slip," he said before cruising into battle against Peter Lilley's gibe about his recent diving activities in the Maldives. "I dived to 80ft but I did not dive deep enough to reach the low Tory poll rating," he said to Labour acclaim. But by the evening a packed house saw Mr Prescott cloaked in the mantle of serious statesman and war leader as he announced the opening of Nato hostilities. With a grave countenance and several stumbles over the pronunciation of "Milosevic", he gave a suitably Churchillian performance that appealed to the sombre mood of MPs. Sticking firmly to the government line, Mr Prescott's confidence grew as he stonewalled searching questions from Tony Benn (Lab, Chesterfield), who reminded MPs that it was Serbian resistance to Hitler which assisted in giving victory to the Allies. Warming to his theme, Mr Prescott said there were great debates in the Labour movement about Hitler. "I am bound to say that we were wrong not to have dealt with appeasement at that time."

Unlike Tony Blair, the Deputy Prime Minister defended the need for the House of Commons to reflect all points of view. "No one can be absolutely sure in his or her judgements and my Rt Hon friend [Mr Benn] is entitled to express his view. That is what democracy is about." Mr Prescott's performance was compared favourably to previous pretend prime ministers, most notably Willie Whitelaw, who once replied to a smart Alec Labour backbencher with the response: "I did not understand the honourable gentleman's question. If I did, the answer would be `yes'; as I did not, the answer is `no'." Mr Prescott cloaked himself fully in the mantle of Churchill, with photocalls in the Ministry of Defence bunker.

THE EASE with which Romano Prodi slides into the job of President of the European Commission at the Berlin summit, with Tony Blair's enthusiastic approval may be due to prime ministerial feelings of guilt. Downing Street sources recalled the diplomatic offence caused to Mr Prodi when, as Italian prime minister, he was presented with the infamous tie issued to heads of government at the summit, during the British presidency of the EU, at the height of "cool Britannia" last year. The tie depicted symbols of each member- state. But, rather than a tasteful scene representing Rome or Florence such as Michelangelo or the Uffizi, Foreign Office staff chose a pizza as the Italian emblem. All is now sweetness and light - but then so it was initially between Margaret Thatcher and Jaques Delors or John Major and Jaques Santer.

AFTER MUCH criticism for absences while on holiday during both the negotiations on the Good Friday Agreement and the recall of Parliament after the Omagh bombings, Andrew Mackay, the opposition Northern Ireland spokesman, has been much in evidence this week, taking Mo Mowlam to task over prisoner releases. Central Office officials are worried that such prominent appearances in Westminster, away from the beaches and the golf course, are taking their toll on Mr Mackay's normally deep suntan. Now looking a decidedly pale shade of orange, Mr Mackay is praying Kosovo and Ulster do not again ruin a much-needed tanning opportunity during the Easter recess.

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