The Week In Westminster: Sensation as Hague endorses Lord Archer to lead Christmas party

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The Independent Online
DESPITE HAVING firmly distanced himself from Lord Archer, William Hague faces still more embarrassment next Wednesday when the Islington North Conservative Association holds its Christmas champagne and canapes reception.

The event, to have been addressed by Lord Archer, was due to be the social highlight of the year for the local Tories and Mr Hague has even written a letter - on official House of Commons notepaper - commending the occasion.

"I am pleased that you have as your guest our candidate for the mayor of London, Jeffrey Archer, and I have no doubt that his presence will ensure that you will have a thoroughly entertaining evening." The letter continues: "The Conservative Party is back as a winning force in British politics."

Copies of Mr Hague's letter, together with a glossy brochure detailing advertisers and sponsors were still plopping through party members' letterboxes after the resignation of the disgraced peer.

Mr Hague's office seems to be catching the Archer-Ashcroft disease, though - it failed to ensure that his message was sent out on Central Office notepaper. Commons rules are strict about official stationery being used for party or fundraising business. The Standards and Privileges Committee, as well as the Serjeant at Arms, is supposed to take a dim view of such breaches of the regulations.

PITY AND sympathy were the overwhelming reactions of Tory MPs to the plight of their party chairman, Michael Ancram, who had the thankless task of trying to explain away the Archer and Ashcroft debacles. There has been much criticism of Mr Ancram but most is unfair. He has borne the brunt of the attacks when William Hague's coterie of kids - led by the likes of Tim Collins (Westmorland), the vice chairman - made matters worse. Those who recall working with Mr Ancram as a Northern Ireland minister (including myself while a Government whip in the Northern Ireland Office) remember his ability to pour oil on troubled waters. He even calmed the likes of Ian Paisley.

The press release, issued in Mr Ancram's name, that implied that somehow the Government or the Labour Party had been hacking into Tory party bank accounts was plain stupid. But the finger of blame for this crass ineptitude pointed at Mr Collins, the sometime wunderkind, who compounded matters by saying he did not care whether Michael Ashcroft's money "came from the other side of the moon" and who suggested a "Watergate"-style conspiracy against the Tories.

Mr Collins' whizzkid reputation was originally gained when he worked as director of communications at Central Office during the Major years. His claim to success is his alleged ability to "turn a story round". But like most of the kids in Mr Hague's back office he is often impetuous. He likes to back winners, but got it horribly wrong by hitching himself to Michael Howard's abortive leadership bid before scrambling aboard the Hague bandwagon. Last week, as he played with political matches and tried to scorch Labour, his petrol bomb blew up in his face. Unfortunately the party chairman had to carry the can. Wiser heads were prepared to forgive Mr Ancram, but will not be so kind to Mr Collins.

WHILE THE Tories were mired in their own mess Labour pulled a fast, sleazy one by sliding Don Touhig (Islwyn) into the Government Whip's Office. Only a few weeks ago, Mr Touhig was on the wrong side of the Standards and Privileges Committee for his part in the leak to the Chancellor's office of the draft report by the Social Security Select Committee. Mr Touhig was Gordon Brown's parliamentary private secretary, and was forced to resign before facing a Commons censure motion that resulted in a three- day suspension from Parliament.

The decision to re-admit Mr Touhig to the Government so soon is a clear sign of its arrogant attitude towards wrongdoing in its own ranks. But it is also beyond belief that the Tories appear to have been unable to make anything of this breathtaking two fingers to the rules against leaking committee reports.

PAUL FLYNN (Lab, Newport West) was prescient when he wrote in his book, Dragons Led by Poodles, published this week, that Mr Touhig's political career might be resurrected through his friendship with the new Secretary of State for Wales, Paul Murphy. Mr Flynn ranks MPs with ratings according to their independence or slavish adherence to the Millbank line. A maximum of five "flames" can be awarded to those showing total minds of their own and up to five "pom-poms" for those under the control of the leadership.

Until his Whips' Office promotion Mr Touhig scored one "flickering" flame and four pom-poms. The Whips' Office should correct the remnants of independent thought and Mr Flynn expects a top score of five pom-poms within the year.

THE QUIFF was flatter, and there was no blue rosette as Michael Portillo gave his victory speech at Kensington and Chelsea. It was certainly not a triumphalist "I'm back" affair. Speaking with the same dignity he maintained in defeat at Enfield Southgate, he had words from Kipling's `If' to hand: "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same".

His revelations about a gay past seem to have made no difference whatsoever to the result. Peter Tatchell's interventions were a minor irritation to Mr Portillo's campaign and, if anything, he should send a letter of thanks to Mr Tatchell for ensuring a sympathy vote.

The journey from the political wilderness to Westminster has taken a mere two and a half years and will end on Tuesday with a 70p No 11 bus ride from his Victoria home to the St Stephen's entrance of the Palace of Westminster.

All eyes are now on him to see whether he reverts to the old Portillo- of-the-Thatcherite-right or whether the new kinder, gentler version we have glimpsed in recent times will survive the pressure from his old allies. A hint of the answer will be given in the coming weeks when he has to decide on how to vote on the age of consent and the repeal of "Section 28", the law that prevents local authorities from promoting homosexuality.

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