The week in Westminster: A man of few views and fewer opinions

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The Independent Online
JUST WHAT the attraction is of Sir Alastair Goodlad - the Tory MP who has secured a plum retirement job as High Commissioner of Australia - escapes most colleagues. His monosyllabic utterances led him to be one of the worst Commons performers at the despatch box and Baroness Thatcher dumped him as a minister in 1987.

But his friends in high places forced her to reinstate him as a senior whip just before she was ousted in 1990. He sailed on to become chief whip under John Major and has a knack of expressing no views on anything - except knowing how to choose influential chums.

Perhaps the best investment he ever made was when he chose to "pair" with the young Labour MP for Sedgefield - one Tony Blair, who last week named him our man in Canberra on a salary of more than pounds 100,000.

Mr Blair's adroit use of prime ministerial patronage embarrasses the Tory leader, William Hague, who had nominated Sir Alastair as a European commissioner only to find the former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten was the frontrunner.

Even more embarrassing for Mr Hague is the by-election at Eddisbury where Sir Alastair's majority is a mere 1,185 over Labour. With more than 6,000 votes for the Liberal Democrats and 2,000 for the Referendum Party, opinion polls point to a great opportunity for a Labour gain - unheard of mid-term for a government.

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IT HAS been a fraught time for Joe McCrea, special adviser to Frank Dobson, Secretary of State for Health, after he fell down stairs, chipped his elbow and dislocated his shoulder.

Mr McCrea today marries Bridget Sweeney, set designer for Labour Party conferences and project designer and co-ordinator for the opening ceremony of the Millennium Dome at Greenwich in south London. Only yesterday he emerged from the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital without the sling, but facing the prospect of a honeymoon climbing in the Rocky mountains.

THE COMMONS, which rose two days early for the Whitsun recess, spent most of the short week discussing parliamentary housekeeping.

First came the approval of a second chamber, the "Westminster Committee". This talking shop will not vote or take decisions but merely provide a forum for backbenchers to let off steam by debating select committee reports.

Gwynth Dunwoody (Lab, Crewe and Nantwich) rightly poured cold water on the scheme arguing that the reports were "not a specialist interest to be tucked away in some nice little place where they will not give us any inconvenience".

David Maclean (Con, Penrith and The Border), even more forthright, said the only demand came from some members of committees who wanted to take over another chamber to debate reports they had already spent weeks discussing. In truth, the reports were only important if they were leaked in advance, embarrassing the Government and causing a furore on the day of publication.

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MPs BAULKED at proposals from Marion Roe (Con, Broxbourne), chair of the Administration Committee, to charge tourists pounds 6.50 to visit Parliament during the summer recess. Despite strong frontbench support, MPs united to vote down the plan.

The debate was sparsely attended, but Dale Campbell-Savours (Lab, Workington) hit on a novel way of making absent MPs listen to him. Turning away from the Speaker's chair, he spoke directly into the cameras relaying the proceedings to MPs on their television monitors. "Please come out of your offices because unless you come and vote against this nonsense, the House will make a ridiculous decision that will make us all look rather silly." The report was defeated by 119 to 36.

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ARCHIE NORMAN (Con, Tunbridge Wells) is riding for a big fall. Having declared that he has completed his modernisation of Conservative Central Office, he has resigned as party vice-chairman in the hope of bamboozling Mr Hague into giving him a front-line job in the Shadow Cabinet. In fact, central office morale has never been lower. Hardly anybody is now employed there and the few left face the axe this summer.

Mr Norman has a high opinion of himself which does not go down well. Old timers in Westminster say he treats them like shelf stackers in one of his Azda supermarkets. But on the basis of his hopeless Commons performances, they are ready to see him at the despatch box where Tories, even more than Labour MPs predict he will be a total flop.

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FOLLOWING THE withdrawal of Liberal Democrat Menzies Campbell as a contender in the race for the party leadership only David Rendel (Newbury) remains as a toff candidate. Advisors cannot make up their minds whether to play on his Old Etonian image or whether to stress his sporting image as an Oxford rowing blue when he attended Magdalen College.

If the latter is chosen it will rebound as rival camps have it on good authority, from his former headmaster, that he was dumped in the water for being a goodie two-shoes.

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