Politics: The Week in Westminster - A shaker, a stitch-up and a new stooge

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THE ASHDOWN decision caught Westminster by surprise and immediately unleashed a torrent of parliamentary speculation.

Few observers could quite believe that Paddy had genuinely decided, before the 1997 general election, on an early-retirement plan. Members of Parliament always assume that there must be some dreadful hidden secret behind such a departure.

There was laughter in Committee Room 11 when the president of the Liberal Democrats, BaronessMaddock, told MPs of her first response when Paddy informed her of his intentions.

"Oh God. Oh well, it could have been worse."

In spite of protestations that Paddy is still in charge, contenders are already jockeying for position this weekend and the party's supposedly ever-deepening relationship with the Government is bound to suffer.

The temptation for most of the contenders for the leadership - apart from Menzies Campbell - to appeal to the huge section of party members opposed to deals with Labour will be irresistible.

The prospects for proportional representation for Westminster look grim - much to the relief of many in the Cabinet and most of Labour's backbenchers.

And what of action-man Paddy himself?

The prospect of retirement is just too fanciful. A seat in the House of Lords is guaranteed.

Offers to go to the United Nations are more likely than to the European Union but after the next election what is to stop Tony Blair giving him that ministerial job for which he must still secretly yearn?

Don't write him out of the political script yet.

MR ASHDOWN'S announcement took the focus away from the heavily trailed statement on Lords reform. The craftiest manoeuvre was the delicious stitch- up of William Hague with the appointment of Lord Wakeham as chairman of the Royal Commission.

I have heard that Mr Blair was planning to call in Lord Butler, the former cabinet secretary.

But a Tory stooge is rather more advantageous.

Lord Wakeham, with his credentials as a former leader of the Commons and leader of the Lords, will cause endless embarrassment to Mr Hague as the unfortunate Conservative leader tries to oppose the reform.

That fine old fixer Lord Wakeham has, of course, seized his opportunity to move back on to the high table of power. The ease with which he has transferred his loyalty to a Labour prime minister surprised few at Westminster.

After all, when Baroness Thatcher contemplated standing for the second ballot in the Tory leadership election in 1990, he agreed to be her campaign manager only if she interviewed each cabinet minister to obtain their personal support. Many believe he set a trap for Lady Thatcher, knowing that most of the Cabinet would tell her to go. Some even think he encouraged them in the process.

Tories tend to regard him with some disdain, so they were not surprised when his name popped up in the chair of the Royal Commission. Apparently Lord Wakeham did not even consult Mr Hague about the appointment.

He joins the growing list of former Tory grandees who have decided that Mr Blair is their best hope for buttering their retirement bread. You should keep an eye on Lord Hurd of Westwell and Sir Alastair Goodlad, my tips as the next New Labour stooges.

LORD LAMONT of Lerwick, the former Tory chancellor, made his maiden speech in the Lords on, inevitably, the subject of the single European currency. Only just within the bounds of non-controversial convention, he opined on the lack of democracy in Europe. "Europe, I fear, will never be democratic, because it is not a nation; where there is no democracy there is no accountability."

It was all a far cry from his other maiden speech, made in the Commons 27 years ago, during the passage of the European Communities Bill, when he described himself as "strongly pro-European".

He went on to say: "The legitimacy of political institutions is based upon consent but it is also based on effectiveness ... It is no service to the British people to block the development of new institutions geared to the problems of our time." Ted Heath commended the speech as "excellent" in his autobiography and will, no doubt, be sending it to Lord Lamont to refresh his rusty memory.

CHUMP OF the week was David Prior, son of Lord Prior and Tory MP for North Norfolk, who waded in at Prime Minister's questions to attack Labour MEPs over the recent vote in the European Parliament on fraud and maladministration in the Commission. Mr Blair could hardly believe his luck that a Tory MP would mention anything to do with MEPs "on this day above all days ... since he has just lost two of his own MEPs and half the Tory group in Europe voted with us".

MOST TORIES hoped Mr Hague's "The British Way" party conference speech was just a holding operation and a slogan, pinched from Gordon Brown, to grab a standing ovation in the absence of any new Tory policies but the wretched phrase reared its vacuous head again this week. Amazingly, Mr Hague chose to make this speech about "brassy Britain" on the day Jonathan Aitken's court case took place. Inevitably, newspapers buried this supposedly keynote speech under mountains of prose about Tory sleaze. Another failure by the Conservative spin-doctors? Mind you, perhaps this was just as well, since it seemed to amount to little more than the Tory leader throwing his support behind cold beer and EastEnders. Let us hope we have heard the last of this empty slogan before it is ridiculed as much as the ill- fated "Back to Basics", which heralded the previous Tory policy of warm beer and bicycling maiden aunts.

ROBIN COOK was heartened by the reception he received from Labour MPs when he visited the members' tea-rooms this week. Eric Clarke (Lab, Midlothian), one of the kindest and most popular of MPs, told him not to worry about the publicity generated by Margaret Cook's book and that the Foreign Secretary's troubles would soon be behind him. Some colleagues thought he was overdoing it, however, when he was apparently overheard saying: "Keep your pecker up, Robin."

PETER MANDELSON appears to have taken up my suggestion last week that he should go to South Africa and work for the ANC in the coming elections. Spin Street, in Cape Town, I am told by Independent reader Kenneth Parker, would be even more appropriate for Mr Mandelson to billet himself, as it crosses Parliament Street and is a stone's throw from the Parliament building.