The Week In Westminster: Archie needs educating in the ways of the Commons

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The Independent Online
THE BUDGET leaks this year have centred on the taxing of child benefit, the abolition of the married man's tax allowance and the final withdrawal of mortgage tax relief. But the absence of kite-flying by the Chancellor's garrulous former spin-doctor Charlie Whelan means that the strategic centrepiece has remained secret.

On past form, Gordon Brown will flourish some tax wizardry to stun an unsuspecting public. Last year, he raised taxes by stealth with an announcement suggesting a reduction in company corporation tax, which actually led to more corporation tax being levied. Assuming the next election comes in the spring of 2001, Mr Brown has three Budgets left to create the economic conditions for Labour's re-election. His promised 10p tax band is still to be delivered but Tuesday looks too soon.

Other clues have been restricted to a hint by Patricia Hewitt, Economic Secretary to the Treasury, of more generous tax treatment of pensioners; and the pegging of interest rates last week by the Bank of England's monetary policy committee - which suggests a mildly expansionary Budget unlikely to inflict any immediate pain.

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ARCHIE NORMAN, the Tory party vice-chairman and former supermarket boss, grasped the chump-of-the-week trophy as he underlined, yet again, his inability to grasp Commons procedures.

Mr Norman spends most of his time sacking party bureaucrats and rubbing voluntary members up the wrong way, which means his attendances in the Commons are infrequent. Making a rare appearance, he blundered in with a convoluted supplementary question that had nothing to do with the subject under discussion.

Amid jeers from the government benches, the Speaker ordered him to resume his seat. Eventually, after Labour MPs taunted him with "Try this one, Archie" he managed to splutter 17 words asking when the next round of private finance initiatives would be announced. He was met with a curt one-word ministerial answer: "Shortly".

It was only a few months ago that Tory MPs, most of whom loathe him, guffawed with delight as the Speaker cut him off for being unable to get a coherent question in order, to Tony Blair. I suggest he sticks to the grocery trade.

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DIANE ABBOTT (Lab, Hackney North & Stoke Newington) landed a heavy blow on the Government with a trenchant demand for select committees to play a key role in restraining "a government with a large majority and a command and control attitude to governance".

Reminding MPs that she had been removed by the Labour whips from the Treasury Committee, she speculated that this was because, after eight years, she might just be capable of making a speech without a brief from Millbank. "Of course, that would never do."

Ms Abbott senses a different atmosphere on joining the Foreign Affairs Committee. She described how Robin Cook told members "they should be travelling to far-flung corners of the globe building good personal relationships with obscure Wisconsin congressmen".

The subsequent admission yesterday by Mr Cook, to David Wilshire (C, Spelthorne), that he has now received three leaked committee reports, looks likely to give Ms Abbott and the Tories further ammunition. Prime suspect for the leaks appears, once again, to be Ernie Ross (Lab, Dundee West) who could face suspension from the Commons after the Standards and Privileges Committee, at the request of the Speaker, investigates the matter.

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WITH THE latest opinion poll giving more dire news for William Hague, this time on his unpopularity among Conservative voters, it seems fantastic that he still talks about party expulsions rather than recruitment.

Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine are the intended targets of his dark "out on your ear" threats if they do not toe the party line over Europe. Mr Hague seems to be looking for an opportunity to stamp his foot in the name of tough leadership. But he should beware in case these old war-horses call his bluff. By continuing to refer to them as "has-beens" he simply alienates and infuriates party supporters in their age group - the bedrock of the remaining Tory vote.

Mr Hague has not yet learnt the Thatcher trick of embracing disparate groups within the party. She went to great lengths to retain and square the likes of Jim Prior, who had previously backed Ted Heath. In fact, Lord Prior should be phoned up and brought inside the Hague tent as a wise old owl after his appearance at this week's launch of the anti-euro campaign. This was far more significant than Lord Owen's presence - guaranteed to scupper the campaign if his track record in the Labour Party and the SDP is anything to go by.

Lord Prior has more time on his hands, after retiring from the chairmanship of GEC, and a great deal of credibility with many moderate Tories. He would be a far greater help to Mr Hague's cause if he was given a formal party position.

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The black actress and singer Patti Boulaye may be a Tory choice for the Greater London Assembly but promises of more women and "with it" Tory MPs foundered last night at the first hurdle.

The membership in Leominster was balloted on its parliamentary choice for the super-safe Herefordshire seat after the defection to Labour of Peter Temple-Morris. There were four candidates: no women were included; three attended Eton; and one, a retired colonel, went to the King's School, Chester, and Sandhurst. Plus ca change.

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DAVID BORROW (Lab, Ribble South) returned to the Commons main entrance after a jog, thinking he had timed it perfectly as he heard the division bell. His attempts to enter Carriage Gates, however, were frustrated as pedestrians were held back by police waving in ministerial limousines. As the division clock ticked Mr Borrow, dressed in trainers and shorts, became increasingly anxious as he tried to convince the police of his identity.

Trying to imagine the sweating jogger as a New Labour MP, one officer said: "Next time, wear a tie, sir."

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