POLITICS: The Week In Westminster: Mr Blair likes surprises. So what about an election next year? Tories too busy self-destructing to punish Blair for his failures

PARLIAMENT BEGAN winding down for the Christmas break with Tony Blair on the back foot over his failing to deliver his "Year of Delivery".

An opinion poll yesterday saw 49 per cent of respondents opining that Mr Blair has not delivered. William Hague's spirited attack at question time shows how the Prime Minster skates on thin ice for not keeping his promises.

If there were an effective opposition, Mr Blair's government would be on the rack: this year was characterised by embarrassments over the London mayoral contest, Europe, beef, taxation, class sizes and hospital waiting lists. Yet in most weeks, Mr Hague and his team have been determined to wipe all these issues from the public consciousness by an orgy of near- suicidal self-inflicted wounding. Two brilliant performances by Mr Hague during the Queen's Speech and this week's exchanges with Mr Blair have been utterly squandered. Mr Blair is a truly lucky politician but even his luck must eventually run out. Normally it is governments which need to time to recover from mid-term blues.

The last thing Mr Blair wants is to give time for the Tories to recover. So next year might well be election year. Prime Ministers love to spring surprises - and don't forget, the new Blair babe will look so photogenic next October.

DAVID AMESS, Conservative MP for Southend West, has proved that genuine persistence pays. Using the regular recess adjournment debates which take place before Easter, Whitsun, Summer and Christmas recesses, Mr Amess has spoken on every occasion for two years arguing for funding to re-open the Palace Theatre in Southend - to the point of boring ministers and MPs rigid.

The saga has taken on soap-opera proportions but Mr Amess has won his battle and declared, in triumph, that the theatre opened last Wednesday. Sadly, Mr Amess, was unable to attend the gala performance of A Christmas Carol because he was delivering the glad tidings to the Commons.

ANDREW MACKINLAY, Labour MP for Thurrock, has a long history of opposing the House of Lords, to the point of advocating its complete abolition. But when it comes to Christmas goodies - chocolates, booze and general kitsch - for deserving family, friends and constituents, Mr Mackinlay believes that the Upper House is the winner. He has used the Commons order paper to criticise the stock of the House of Commons souvenir shop, which he derides as "bland, limited in range and in many cases over-priced". His motion, meanwhile, "regrets that this contrasts with the wide and imaginative range of reasonably priced, quality products in the House of Lords shop".

TONY BENN, Labour MP for Chesterfield, is leading the fight to retain the present complement of Commons doorkeepers, whose numbers are under threat from the outgoing Serjeant at Arms. Over 100 MPs have signed a motion tabled by Mr Benn, who raised the matter in the Commons with Margaret Beckett, the Leader of the House. The plethora of new MPs with pagers, mobile phones, computer e-mails and faxes has led to a diminution in the demand of the services of the old-fashioned telephone message board. The doorkeepers, dressed in white tie and tails, have historic rights to enter the Commons chamber and committee rooms bearing the messages. Most senior MPs still prefer to receive messages in this way and Mr Benn believes the doorkeepers' services are "incalculable".

MEANWHILE, ALAN Duncan, Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton and the junior Tory spokesman for trade and industry, failed in his own attempt to apply the provisions of the Electronic Communications Bill relating to the conduct of MPs during committee sittings on the Bill.

Anxious to make his own contribution to modernisation, he was pleased to note that, for the first time, the committee clerk was using a lap- top computer and then asked the chairman, John Maxton (Labour, Glasgow Cathcart), if he could do the same. Mr Maxton replied that if the chairman and clerk agreed, the clerk was allowed the use of a lap-top. "However, the ruling of the Speaker in the House, which extends to committees, is that lap-tops cannot be used by Honourary Members," said Mr Maxton.

SPARE A thought for Margaret Beckett on New Year's Day when she will be on ministerial duty as the millennium-bug buster, commanding operations from 1 January until the all clear is sounded on 7 January. Mrs Beckett copped it last summer when she allegedly took a caravan break during the European elections campaign. On this occasion she makes no bones about who is in charge and what her duties are: "I am the fall guy if it all goes wrong."

AFTER LAST year's 17in-long Christmas card from Michael Portillo, recipients were expecting the traditional House of Commons card featuring the Crypt Chapel. But Mr Portillo has once again stuck to his "own brand", sending a splendid colourful print of The Three Kings by Leopold Kupelwieser (courtesy of the Osterreichische Galerie, Belvedere, Vienna). Friends said the cards were ordered before the by-election and he did not wish to tempt providence by ordering Commons cards in advance. In any event, his own card is far grander.

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