The Week In Westminster: Food will be undoing of Brown hy

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NICK BROWN'S number could be up next year, quite apart from this week's slap in the face when the French insisted on keeping the ban on British beef. The Agriculture Minister's department could be disbanded when the Food Standards Agency comes into operation, allowing farming matters to be merged into a new countryside ministry.

Most agree that Mr Brown could not have played the beef crisis any other way but, for the moment, it is the Tories' Tim Yeo who has had a good "beef war". He won the battle in the Commons and hands the baton to William Hague who will raise the stakes on Monday when Tony Blair makes a Commons statement on the Helsinki statement. Mr Blair is taking a big risk by not putting the beef issue on the summit agenda and this will give Mr Hague the chance he needs to restore the Tories' battered morale.

MICHAEL PORTILLO'S first Commons speech since winning Kensington and Chelsea was, technically, not a "maiden" speech because he has returned to Parliament as a "retread". He had not made a backbench speech since 1986, and obviously missed the "prop" of the despatch box, from which he made all his subsequent speeches until his 1997 election defeat.

Perhaps this was why he needed the comfort blanket of his own "prop" - the "Portillo" air cushion sent to him from a fan in Australia. The gag about the inflatable cushion being full of bounce, like him, did not work and will come back to haunt him. A Soho sex shop is now considering bringing out its own blow up "Portillo" which will have attributes Mr Portillo might prefer to forget. But the serious stuff was vintage Portillo Rioja and he landed heavy punches on John Prescott, who was reduced to shaking his fist and mouthing obscenities from a sedentary position.

Mr Prescott had escaped any serious mauling from his shadow, John Redwood, during the opposition debate on London Underground. A vicious bout of flu had given Mr Redwood a temperature, which his aides said had soared to 10 degrees. Having to look around at Mr Portillo on the rampage could not have done much for his mental health either.

One Tory wag suggested that the Shadow Cabinet was clubbing together for a chiropractor due to members spending so much time looking over their shoulders every time Mr Portillo appeared on the back benches.

THE LORDS refreshment department will welcome this week's decision to restore "club rights" to recently expelled hereditary peers. Since the mass ejection, the bars and restaurants have seen takings plummet. Relief is at hand, however, following the ratification of recommendations by a select committee to restore access to the peers' dining room and bar and the right to entertain three guests once a month.

MARK FIELD, a former solicitor who runs a city recruitment consultancy, has just been selected to succeed Tory MP Peter Brooke as the candidate for Westminster - giving Michael Portillo another reason to celebrate.

Mr Field, 35, is a Kensington and Chelsea councillor who was doing the dirty work to knock out Mr Portillo's short-listed rivals. Similar methods were employed on Mr Field's behalf to knock out his own rivals at Westminster.

Expect to hear much from Mr Field during and after any Portillo leadership bid following the next election. For the moment, Mr Field will be part of the embryonic Portillo team under strict orders to keep silent while planning covertly for the long term.