The Week In Westminster: Hague trapped by old guard and the kids playing politics and old into sticking with them

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The Independent Online
WITH THE Tories at an all-time low - according to a Mori poll this week - someone, supposedly close to William Hague, made a ham-fisted attempt to prepare the ground to dump old-timers such as Gillian Shephard, John Redwood, Sir Norman Fowler and Michael Howard. The plan backfired spectacularly when Mrs Shephard, in an angry and emotional call to Mr Hague, demanded to know what was going on. He was forced to issue a statement denying the story. His room for manoeuvre, in any forthcoming summer reshuffle to freshen the team, has been severely limited.

Although there is a case for purging the Tory front bench of faces who remind the public of their unpopular past attempts at low politics, Mr Hague's henchmen were doomed once Mrs Shephard geared into action.

Accusing fingers pointed towards Andrew Cooper, a member of the Danny Finkelstein mafia in Central Office, who runs Mr Hague's research department. Others saw the hand of the hated Tory vice- chairman, Archie Norman, whose star is fading, although this was vehemently denied.

Either way Mr Hague is trapped by the old guard. John Redwood may be pointy-eared but his reputation for original thought and hard work is undeniable. He is shadowing his third Secretary of State at the DTI, and also claims part responsibility for the downfall of Geoffrey Robinson. Even the time-served Sir Norman Fowler emerged strengthened from the bloodletting. He managed a good speech opposing the age-of-consent Bill without appearing prejudiced against homosexuals.

Mr Hague appears to sideline his Shadow Cabinet, and operate through his kids in the back office. But this may change after Mrs Shephard's showdown. The solution is easy. Remove Mrs Shephard and Sir Norman from the front line but keep them in the Shadow Cabinet. Put them in Mr Hague's office where their experience, guile and common sense would sort out the kids playing student-union politics.

PADDY ASHDOWN'S decision to allow a phoney leadership contest to drag on for several months may not be such a bad idea after all.

The mood towards him in the Commons has changed dramatically with cheers of affection from all sides replacing the groans that previously greeted his interventions at Question Time.

Also, Liberal Democrat contenders jockeying for position will be attended at their every move by journalists watching for any hint of leadership campaigning. Otherwise humdrum party meetings in far-flung constituencies are boosted by the oxygen of publicity whenever the likes of Charles Kennedy, Simon Hughes and Menzies Campbell appear.

Mr Hughes was seen deep in conversation with John Major in the Members' Tea Room. Whether this was an attempt to secure a rival endorsement to match Tony Blair's rumoured backing of Mr Kennedy is not yet known.

FIRST PRIZE for parliamentary speech of the week goes jointly to Labour's Tam Dalyell (Linthgow) and to the Tories' Sean Woodward (Witney).

Mr Dalyell gave a brilliant speech introducing a Bill under the 10-minute rule requiring parliamentary approval for military action against Iraq. He stressed the powerful argument against the futility of bombing, putting a convincing case for the proposition that, in circumstances whereby Britain is embarking on a protracted military operation with no clear end in sight, Parliament should be formally consulted.

Mr Dalyell pointed out that even Margaret Thatcher - no friend of his - agreed to and initiated the recall of Parliament to secure the endorsement of the house during the Falklands War. Mr Dalyell is dogged, persistent and unpopular. The trouble is he is usually right.

Sean Woodward made a similarly brave speech in favour of the age-of- consent Bill. Sadly he was joined by only five Tory MPs in the Division Lobby, making a mockery of Archie Norman's assurance at the end of last year that the Tory party is prepared to consider the selection of gay MPs. Speeches by Tories Edward Leigh (Gainsborough), Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) and Andrew Roebotham (Blaby) revealed that the party's heart is still rooted in anti-gay prejudice and hypocrisy.

FRANK DOBSON notched up a considerable victory over Nick Brown and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food which has been dragging its feet over the new Food Standards Agency. Maff and its officials had tried to ensure there was no prospect of the Bill appearing in the current session.

The artful Dobbo went behind Brown's back to Tony Blair and pointed in blunt terms to the Labour Party manifesto commitment. Maff is still playing up and will doubtless continue to cause political sabotage by using the poll tax-style levy on food outlets, regardless of size, to generate opposition from small retailers.

WHILE William Hague had another difficult week his health spokeswoman, Ann Widdecombe, saw her star burn ever brighter as she impressed journalists at a Press Gallery lunch with a rumbustious demand for an honest NHS debate. She suggested that neither party could satisfy the demand for healthcare solely from public funds.

Miss Widdecombe won gnarled hacks to her cause when she wowed them with asense of humour rarely seen on Tory benches. She described an election meeting when she spoke to a crowd about her Christian principles. Unfortunately her agent had mislaid her leaflets entitled "Standing up for Christian Principles". She bellowed to the party official, in front of amused voters, "Come back, I haven't got any Christian Principles."

At one selection committee she was asked to describe her views on morality in the context of drinking, smoking and sex. "I do one in moderation; one I've never tried, and one I'd tax out of existence." Subtle attempts to match the answers resulted in party members resorting to the ploy of offering her unlimited drink and cigarettes.

Another time she was introduced to a meeting by a local party functionary as "someone who has impressed the party with her debatable qualities". Another time, an old buffer who had snored throughout her speech failed to wake up when she bellowed, "Wake up to the dangers of Tony Blair." The hapless fellow was then called upon to propose the vote of thanks but brought the house down when he thanked Miss Widdecombe "for that dream of a speech".

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