The Week In Westminster: Is there a place for Lilley at Hague's Kitchen Table?

THERE WAS a collective sigh of relief on the Conservative benches on hearing that Michael Howard has decided to spend more time with his directorships and quit the front bench. He has finally bowed to what Michael Portillo described as his "image problem". In truth, though, he has probably decided the Conservatives are simply not going to win the next election.

He will still be able to enjoy a chauffeur and limousine which, as a former Home Secretary, he retains for security reasons. The way is now open for Mr Hague to encourage other old timers to pack it in, despite the rearguard action last month on their behalf by Gillian Shephard. Sir Norman Fowler is said to be ready to stand down if required but speculation also surrounds the future of the Deputy Leader, Peter Lilley. Mr Lilley has not spoken at the dispatch box either at question time or in a debate since last June and looks miserable most of the time. In fact, the body language of several frontbenchers is giving Conservative MPs cause for concern. Francis Maude, the shadow Chancellor, and James Arbuthnot, the 'invisible' Chief Whip, sit glumly with permanent scowls on their faces. This hardly suggests that they have come to terms with the long haul of opposition. Iain Duncan Smith, the shadow Social Security spokesman is among those tipped as Mr Howard's replacement because of his hard-line stance on Europe.

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THE DEBATE on women brought back blasts from the past on both sides with excellent speeches from former ministers, Harriet Harman and Virginia Bottomley. Ms Harman had a go at the 'New Labour, New Lad' style of the Government, with a full frontal assault on its failure to "talk to women as well as men". She attacked it for falling back on "militaristic, macho, hierarchical language and behaviour". She gave as an example the manner in which the Government tried to refocus the media agenda in the aftermath of Peter Mandelson's resignation. "They announced that the refocusing would be led by the big guns, the big hitters and the big beasts." Ms Harman said this was an example of men talking about men to other men and denied that her views could be dismissed as political correctness.

Mrs Bottomley, meanwhile, was brought back onto the Conservative front bench to wind up the debate for the Opposition - underlining the Tory shortage of women MPs. She made mincemeat of the government document "Delivering for women - progress so far", exposing it as nothing more than a series of trite comments. Mrs Bottomley has been one of the few former cabinet ministers not to sink without trace. She has successfully reinvented herself and may make a surprise re-entry to permanent frontbench duties.

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GERALD HOWARTH (C, Aldershot) has been stalking the Lord Chancellor over the alleged misuse of his official private office to promote his close friend, Andrew Patrick, in his rejoining of the Garrick Club. In answer to Mr Howarth, the Prime Minister confirmed that Lord Irvine's office "was involved in preparing and dispatching some letters on the Lord Chancellor's behalf. This was an oversight and the costs have been reimbursed". Mr Howarth then ascertained in another written question (cost pounds 112) that pounds 9.80 for postage; pounds 7.84 for stationery; and pounds 6.98 for typing had been repaid to the Government by Lord Irvine.

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WILLIAM HAGUE prepares for this weekend's half-yearly mini-Tory conference at Reading with the fourth relaunch since he became party leader.

He began with "fresh future" before moving onto the "listening to Britain" exercise. But this was superseded by the policy of doing things "the British way". Now we have the latest gimmick called "kitchen table Conservatism" which is no longer based on economics and is to be conducted in shirt sleeves and without ties.

Mr Hague should not down-grade the previous emphasis on economics. He played to his strengths this week with an effective response to the Budget by concentrating on the single target of cumulative tax increases since Gordon Brown became Chancellor.

Mr Hague has also taken the law into his own hands when it comes to dealing with the press. No longer relying on spin-doctors to harangue the sceptical media, he is challenging journalists to judo bouts following his regular training sessions with his minder, Sebastian Coe. First up is "Judo Matt", otherwise known as The Sunday Telegraph's deputy editor, Matthew D'Ancona. Hacks are demanding attendance to the grudge match but all the smart money is on Hague to win at least this battle with the press.

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PADDY ASHDOWN may have ordered aspiring leadership candidates not to declare themselves formally or canvass actively for support, but subtle hints of make-overs, preparation for the hustings ahead, have already been noticed.

The once fierce and formidable Jackie Ballard (Taunton) has softened her edges for media appearances and positively glows with elegance after a transformation in her dress sense. Meanwhile the greying, tousled locks of Don Foster (Bath) haved suddenly become a suspiciously shiny shade of brown, with more than a hint of Grecian 2000.

DAVID BLUNKETT'S black, curly haired retriever, Lucy, who was in disgrace with Millbank Tower for her sickly reaction to the Budget debate, is gaining a reputation for forthright political views.

On one occasion she responded to an evasive answer from Tony Blair during question time with an embarrassing growl of disgust. But she knows party loyalty better than most canine politicians. Even before the general election, when she was newer than her boss to her duties, she tried to lead Mr Blunkett on to the government benches. Stopping off once in Smith Square, Westminster, for a call of nature while in a taxi - accompanied by this newspaper's political editor and Mr Blunkett - she dutifully bounded over to defecate in front of Conservative Central Office.

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THIS WEEK'S Budget was more Flash Gordon than Prudence. MPs on all sides were dazzled with Mr Brown's wizardry. But, as Labour MPs cheered it to the echo, Andrew Rowe (C, Faversham and Mid-Kent) remarked that the last time he heard a similar reaction was when Conservative MPs cheered Nigel Lawson's 1988 Budget. It was downhill to recession for the Conservatives from that point on.

The word "budget" comes from the French bougette meaning a "small bag" and is thought to derive from a cartoon in a pamphlet of 1733 which showed Sir Robert Walpole (the Prime Minister and Chancellor) opening a bag (or budget) full of medicines and potions. Mr Brown's 67-minute speech was relatively short but was beaten for brevity by Benjamin Disraeli's record of 45 minutes in 1867. The longest Budget speech, by William Gladstone in 1853, took five hours to deliver - hence the tradition that permits the Chancellor to refresh himself with alcohol. In the last century even MPs in the house were recorded as having been "fortified" with spirits during particularly long- winded speeches.

More recently, Ken Clarke chose malt whisky; Nigel Lawson, in the yuppie Eighties, went for spritzer while Geoffrey Howe opted for gin and tonic. In previous times, rum with orange was the choice of Hugh Gaitskell. Derrick Heathcote Amory, a Conservative chancellor in the Fifties, chose milk and honey with rum although he actually collapsed while delivering the Budget. Overwork rather than the rum was responsible for that embarrassment. Mr Brown took no chances, sticking to mineral water during his speech to ensure a clear head for the round of media broadcasts and interviews afterwards.

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