The Week In Westminster: Jonathan Aitken was my legal adviser

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The Independent Online
WHEN I had to resign as a junior government whip in 1994, Jonathan Aitken wrote to me: "However much outward support you get, it is your own inner soul and strength that will win the comeback battle for you." Sadly, Aitken's ability to give good advice to others was not matched by his willingness to apply it to himself. In the same letter, he continued: "Don't rush into legal proceedings. You can hold a position for months with the line that you are taking legal advice. Suing could be worse than not suing."


TONY BLAIR displayed a surprising lack of triumphalismin the Commons, despite having his authority in Parliament and the world greatly streng- thened by Kosovo.

As he exorcised the ghosts of Tory claims, before the election, that Labour was soft on defence and foreign affairs, one might have expected greater talk of "victory".

But there was a notable absence of "Rejoice, rejoice" so beloved of Baroness Thatcher in similar circumstances, and a genuine anxiety to play down his role of war leader.

Most MPs on all sides now accept he has passed the ultimate test of leadership, and the "Bambi" image of the boy in a man's world, which the Tories originally sought to create, has been blown apart.

Mr Blair's immediate willingness to share the credit with Robin Cook, George Robertson and, pointedly, Clare Short, means their positions in the Cabinet are utterly secure. By comparison, Lady Thatcher dispensed quickly with the services of her defence and foreign secretaries (Sir John Nott and Frances Pym) who were never allowed to share in her Falklands glory.

Robin Cook, who looked shaky a year ago, has had a "good war" and although more in the background than George Robertson, now looks impregnable at the Foreign Office.

The problem is how to reward George Robertson, who would have been a natural successor to Mr Cook had he "messed up". It all looks likely to mean no change in the Cabinet, with talk of reshuffle this summer confined to junior ranks.

There are few political gainers from the war on the Tory side although, ironically, Michael Howard, who leaves the front bench in the next fortnight, made the most coherent criticisms of the conduct of the war. He returns to the back benches with felllow Tories feeling guilty at losing the most experienced member of their old guard.


THE FORMER Tory minister Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) made a powerful speech during a debate on Lords reform, calling on both main parties to loosen the control their whips wield over backbenchers. He suggested that, but for the whips, Tory MPs would never have voted for the community charge or the Maastricht treaty, at least without a referendum clause.

But Mr Hogg was forced to admit his inglorious past as a government whip when the Tory frontbencher Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) said he had been "dreadful" at the job. Mr Hogg acknowledged that "having taken the Queen's salt, I performed my functions with enthusiasm - as my Hon Friend says, I was dreadful. I was certainly a vigorous whip, but I acted disapproving of myself."

In a sideswipe at Sir Patrick, he added: "If I may say so, I did not necessarily have a high regard for those of my colleagues to whom I gave instruction."


THE ELECTION of Hilary Benn as Labour MP for Leeds West brings full circle the campaign of his father, Tony, for the rights of hereditary peers to stand and be elected for a seat in the Commons.

Tony was disqualified as MP for Bristol South East when he inherited the title of Viscount Stansgate on the death of his father in 1960. Although re-elected in the by-election caused by his own disqualification, an election court awarded the Commons seat to his Tory rival.

It took a change in the law by means of the Peerage Act in 1963 for Tony to renounce the title (held in abeyance until his death) and return to the Commons. Ironically, the present Lords reforms would enable Hilary, if still elected, to sit in the Commons as the 3rd Viscount Stansgate on Tony's death (which we hope will be centuries hence).


WILLIAM HAGUE looks likely to do well enough in the European elections to stave off, temporarily, further speculation over his leadership (to the relief of Tony Blair as much as the Tory hierarchy). The probable turn-out of 25 per cent means Labour will suffer disproportionately. In fairness, Mr Hague did have a good campaign against Labour by focusing on the single currency as a single issue. This is the only issue on which the Tories have brought clarity, even at the price of the probable expulsion of "One Nation" grandees such as Lord Gilmour and Nicholas Scott.

Some MPs are saying constitutional reform offers a similar opportunity for clarity and the Tories should outflank Labour on Lords reform and devolution. Most Tory backbenchers are supporting an elected upper chamber and believe the front bench should go for a simple alternative to Labour's continued equivocation.