Politics: The Week In Westminster - Tony should ignore the pampas grass people should listen to Skinner's Old Labour

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR had a rotten week and his normal confidence deserted him during a lacklustre performance at Prime Minister's Question Time. The leader hailed as the principal victor in the Balkans war found it difficult to adjust to the grind of domestic politics.

Having led the Labour Party for five years without suffering defeat at the polls, his reverses at the European elections finally showed that, like all previous prime ministers, he could not defy the laws of political gravity forever.

The real worry is not that Labour voters have shown any enthusiasm for the Conservatives, but that they have discovered no good reason to turn out and vote for candidates they don't know who won't make any difference to their lives anyway.

Mr Blair has tended to take Labour's core support for granted and needs to heed the advice of Dennis Skinner (Lab Bolsover) who said it is pretty clear proportional representation is not a good idea in Britain. He added that the British people "do not go a bundle on the Common Market". Perhaps his best advice was: "It is high time that the Labour Government paid a little more attention to their hard-core working-class Old Labour vote and perhaps not so much to those who live up long winding drives with pampas grass 12 feet high."

IT WOULD be childish not to acknowledge that William Hague scored a political triumph by making the most of the unexpected gains by Conservatives in the European elections. The skids had been under him for nine months and party insiders suspended judgement after the local elections in May.

Mr Hague is now safe and talk of leadership speculation is at an end. (This column's bet last year, that Ann Widdecombe would be party leader by the next general election is lost but the betting slip is not being thrown away.) The low turnout last week showed that 92 per cent of the electorates did not vote Conservative but the disastrous result for Labour (94 per cent did not vote for them) gave Mr Hague the boost he needed.

The new stars are bright, technocratic, fortyish, Euro-sceptic and anonymous to all but Westminster watchers. The exception is Miss Widdecombe whose popular brand of honest political incorrectness has made her a household name. She has been awarded with the Home Office brief after forceful performances shadowing Frank Dobson at Health.

Of the new Tory entrants to the shadow cabinet, Bernard Jenkin (Essex North) is likely to show the most promise with the transport brief. A close friend and supporter of Michael Portillo he is a good Commons' performer with a ready wit, matinee idol looks and a large repertoire of political mimicry. His wife, Anne, is one of Westminster's finest political hostesses and his father, Lord (Patrick) Jenkin served in Baroness Thatcher's first cabinet. In an age of management consultants he is one of the few youngsters with the social graces of the Old Tory school combined with the skills necessary in the television age.

MARGARET BECKETT, as Labour campaigns co-ordinator, looks like being the scapegoat for Labour's drubbing at the polls. Yet back-bench MPs were decidedly underwhelm-ed at the prospect of Peter Mandelson's possible return to Millbank Tower. Mrs Beckett was unfairly accused of being away on a week's caravanning holiday in France during the election campaign. In fact she took a couple of days off during the Whitsun bank holiday.

The popular choice for party rabble-rouser is the DTI minister Ian McCartney but Downing Street moved quickly to rule out such a suggestion. The possibility of establishing a more organised chain of party command with a post akin to the Tory party chairman is being actively canvassed with Mo Mowlam emerging as a likely contender.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, is the man who best understands the motivation of traditional Labour supporters and he will be working overtime to prevent the return of Mr Mandelson in the run-up to any party reorganisation.

SHREWDEST TORY appointment was that of John Whittingdale (Malden & Chelmsford East) as Parliamentary Private Secretary to William Hague.

Mr Whittingdale served Baroness Thatcher as her political secretary between 1987 and 1990 and was also special adviser to Sir Leon Brittan during the Westland crisis 14 years ago when Sir Leon was a cabinet minister.

Mr Whittingdale will be adept at keeping lines of communication open between the party leader and Lady Thatcher as well as smoothing over trouble if she goes off the deep end with critical comments to the press.

Equally valuable will be Mr Whittingdale's close personal friendship with Michael Portillo. Mr Portillo has resisted invitations to become Tory Party Chairman and is a potential loose cannon with the freedom to say and write as he pleases. But Mr Whittingdale's balming oil will soothe any troublesome moments.

IT WAS a surprisingly bad week for William Hague's cronies Alan Duncan (C, Rutland & Melton) and Archie Norman (C, Tunbridge Wells) who ran his leadership campaign. Neither have gained a place in the shadow cabinet and both have to be content with dull sideways moves. Mr Duncan, who deputised for Ann Widdecombe, has been put under another bossy woman as deputy to Angela Browning, shadowing trade and industry. Mr Duncan blotted his copy book last month in an interview with Steve Richards in the New Statesman which led to a public dressing-down by Mr Hague. Mr Norman's arrogance in resigning as chief executive at Conservative central office, last month, saying his task was complete, smacked of a thinly veiled attempt to bounce his way into the shadow cabinet. Backbenchers were gleeful that he is being made to eat humble pie in the political salt mines as junior opposition spokesman on foreign affairs under the less than charismatic John Maples.

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