Diary

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The Independent Online
There have been wild rumours in Ulster that Norman Lament may be about to stand in the forthcoming by-election in Down North caused by the death of Sir James Kilfedder. Badger-features is keeping his head down, but Wilkes's Ulster Unionist friends dismiss such talk as a load of solid spheres. For one thing, Lament, er, Lamont, cannot stand for one seat until he relinquishes the other. There is little likelihood of that: under the parliamentary rules, he would lose his "resettlement grant" - redundancy - unless he fought and lost at the next general election or stood down at election time.

The former Chancellor is keen to stay in the House. But having made his solo rebellion against the Government and turned against Major, Lamont is getting no help from Central Office in finding a constituency to replace his Kingston upon Thames seat, which sinks in the boundary changes.

Lamont is interested but not hopeful about rumours that a constituency in Yorkshire wants him. There is always, however, Folkestone and Hythe, currently in the possession of his old friend Michael Howard, found guilty of breaking the law this week. Wilkes isn't sure, but believes that Howard must relinquish the seat while he spends a salutary few years in a boot camp.

Beep, beep! Alert! Alert! All right-wingers please check postbags for hoaxes. A simply marvellous letter has come Wilkes's way. It was sent to Michael Portillo and begins by congratulating him on being the "only sane MP in Parliament'' before continuing: "If only income support, sickness benefit, unemployment benefit, the old-age pension and the National Health Service could be abolished. At a stroke it would release billions for tax cuts ... You should begin by making the new job-seekers allowance much tougher. Make people work really hard for their benefits - in special work camps with army-style discipline. Everyone on benefit is too lazy to work ... In 20 years, I have worked extremely hard dealing in currency futures and have saved a little nest egg. I don't like to see parasites gobbling it up through taxes.''

Thus far, Wilkes thought, pretty standard, sensible stuff. Portillo no doubt agreed. Then the letter continues by advocating withdrawal from the "corrupt'' EU and noting: "If the party does badly at the local elections, there could be a challenge to your divisive softie leader. His defeat would be the best possible tonic for the party ... It may be in your best interests if Major leads the party into the next election and suffers the now highly likely defeat. Then you would have a better chance of becoming leader ...''

And Michael Portillo's answer? "I am writing to thank you very much for your supportive letter of 20 March. I hope you will understand if I do not comment on what you write but as you are not a constituent of mine, and owing to lack of resources, it is not possible for me to answer letters from outside my own constituency. But, having said that, I have read your letter with interest and I appreciate your remarks.'' Or, as the hoaxer himself told Wilkes, he seems to agree "with the extremist rubbish that I manufactured''.

Wilkes was lunching the other day in the excellent Soho House - the Groucho Club of the Nineties - when he was loudly regaled by a fellow member, clearly enjoying a few champagne cocktails, on the matter of Lord McAlpine. This fellow, who described himself as the "black sheep" of the McAlpine family, and was accompanied by a charming lady of model looks, let the dining room hear in very loud terms that Alistair was on the way out from the family firm over his investments in Australia.

Wilkes was therefore not surprised to see that McAlpine had duly left the firm, civil engineers Sir Robert McAlpine. The rumour that he has left to start raising funds for the Tory party is laughable. After saying it would do the Tories good to have a taste of opposition, he is hardly likely to get over the front step of Central Office.

Major paid him the ultimate put-down by suggesting it might all be part of McAlpine's attempt to flog his naff political novel. On the other hand, Major's ability to forgive his enemies seems to know no bounds. The other day I spotted entering No 10 Lord Rees Mogg, who cast doubts on Major's mental equipment to hold the highest post in the land.

Gerald Kaufman's select committee report on Labour's luvvies - the future (or lack of it) of the British film industry - looked like one of those glossy mags which used to be available from my local picture house. He tells me that after castigating Four Weddings and a Funeral in public, he made sure there was a photograph on the front cover of Hugh Grant and Andie McDowell. He is even more vituperative about the Madness of King George, which he considers a "sell-out'' by the playright turned scriptwriter Alan Bennett. Sell-out of whom, Wilkes wonders? The German immigrant royals?

The nation's journalist-economists ask: Why is Britain uncompetitive? Wilkes asks: who wants to know, and why do we care? But it turns out the nation is agog for the answer and prepared to buy the book by the Guardian's Will Hutton in great numbers in order to find it. It is the surprise best- seller of the year so far, if not the decade. But why is the rival book from the Financial Times's Sir Samuel Brittan, Capitalism with a Human Face, not selling so well? Ah. Mr Hutton's 288-page hardback retail for £16.99. Sir Sam's 320-page hardback is £49.95 (though there is a cheaper paperback, too). Still, an extra 32 pages for another £32. A pound a page. That is what is called uncompetitive.

My notoriously rebellious colleague, Nicholas Winterton, was frankly baffled when he received an official letter the other day from Sir George Young, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, addressed to him as: "Nicholas R Winterton Esq MP, 10 Downing Street, London SW1A." What is the Treasury playing at? Don't they know who the First Lord of the Treasury is any more? Or is there a deeper plot being hatched to undermine young Johnnie Major? Watch this space.

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