True blue Tony speaks out - against Howard and his 'mob'

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The Independent Online

* Like New Labour before them, Michael Howard's Tories may be about to discover the perils of wooing the celebrity vote.

* Like New Labour before them, Michael Howard's Tories may be about to discover the perils of wooing the celebrity vote.

Last summer - as this column first revealed - the Conservatives began holding parties at fashionable London nightspots, at which their leader was photographed with new, high-profile supporters.

So far, it's been a rip-roaring success, with the likes of Bryan Ferry and Matthew Vaughn attending the bashes. But there are now signs of disquiet in the ranks.

Tony Hadley the former Spandau Ballet star, was until recently being talked about as a future Tory MP after "coming out" as a supporter in September. But he's now voicing reservations about the party's direction under Howard.

Speaking at a fundraiser at Frankie's restaurant in Knightsbridge on Monday, Hadley explained: "I'm not happy with the Government, but I don't think much of this mob either. They should be punching Labour's lights out and they're not.

"Michael Howard's great at Prime Minister's Questions, but he's far too apologetic. For example, he's making promises about inheritance tax but not being straightforward about why. It's a criminal tax; he should just come out and say it."

Other guests at the bash included Bruce Oldfield, Caroline Feraday, and Peter Stringfellow. Let's hope they stay "on message" in the run-up to the election.

* PLENTY OF nail-biting at the National Portrait Gallery last night, when Dame Judi Dench arrived for the unveiling of her new portrait.

The formidable actress, who is never one to mince her words, declined invitations to see the uncompromising work before it was unveiled.

"The first glimpse she'll get is when the curtains are opened," said the painter, Alessandro Raho, before the unveiling.

"When you're painting someone like Dame Judi, it's as daunting for you as it is for them, when they first see the picture."

Apropos of the sittings, Raho - who is soon to exhibit at the Alison Jacques Gallery - adds: "She asked me how I wanted her to stand, and I told her to pretend she's waiting for a bus. I don't know when she last did that, though: she arrived at the studio with a driver."

* BEDALES SCHOOL - the "progressive" alma mater of Daniel Day-Lewis and Minnie Driver, left - will this Friday host a historic debate on the international diamond trade.

For the first time, representatives of De Beers have agreed to appear on stage with Survival International, the organisation campaigning against their mining practices in Namibia.

It's already causing controversy. Survival claimed yesterday De Beers had threatened to pull out unless the press were kept out of the event; but the company insisted otherwise.

"I mentioned in passing to the organiser that neither side should seek publicity, as it was an educational event," said a spokesman. "I didn't think I was demanding confidentiality, though."

* ANN WIDDECOMBE is turning into the Barbara Cartland de nos jours . By the end of 2005, the cuddly, cat-loving MP will have written four books in as many years.

At the launch of her latest potboiler, Father Figure, last week, Widdy told me she's begun a sequel to her second novel An Act of Treachery .

"After that, I'll probably write a book called The Idealists , about people who go into politics to realise an ideal and lose their ideals in the course of practical politics."

Should strike a chord with Widdecombe, who is out of favour with her party's leader. But she insists: "None of my books contain autobiographical stuff - it's all in my imagination."

* Sacha Baron Cohen's ongoing campaign to "crack" America has suffered a serious setback. Todd Phillips, the director of his latest film, has resigned due to "creative differences".

It all follows a nasty incident earlier this month, when the Ali G creator attended a rodeo in Virginia, to film an opening sequence of the as-yet unnamed movie.

Posing as a Kazakhstani journalist, Borat, he sang a "mangled" version of the US anthem, before announcing: "May George W Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq."

That sparked a riot, forcing Cohen and his crew to flee from what onlookers described as a "near lynching". It's an experience Hollywood bigshot Phillips - who previously directed Starsky and Hutch - has no desire to repeat.