Friday 03 February 1995
Now then, it takes a lot for Wilkes to say things are going too far. But ... things are going too far. The latest proposals for the persecution of the unemployed are in the fine traditions of Her Majesty's Party of Government. But what does one find scanning the amendments to the Jobseekers Bill? One finds one proposal from two little lardballs from the Tory backbenches, Oliver Heald and Gary Streeter, requiring members of the working classes to be "clean, tidy and reasonably dressed" when atte nding job interviews "having removed all facial and other adornment likely to impair a reasonable employer in the private sector from offering employment ..." No beards? No ear-rings, such as were worn from time immemorial by English workers? No silly mo ustaches?How would their hairier colleagues - many of them filthy, untidy and dressed up to look like pin-striped dumplings, fare if such an amendment were passed?
One old friend of Wilkes is Douglas Hurd - known each other since our whippet-racing days way back - and so Wilkes has been most upset about the number of Tory backbenchers wandering the corridors saying that Douglas must go. A couple of them have been putting it about that Peter Lilley, the boyish, cerebral Social Security Secretary, is the man to replace him - presumably because he has a house in France and teases foreigners in his party conference speeches. But Douglas himself believes that a cabal of four or so ministers decided to mount a campaign to get rid of him a few weeks ago, and have failed. Wilkes is not the man to be over-excited by conspiracy theories and, normally, neither is the Foreign Secretary.
Certainly, Wilkes would deprecate most strongly any suggestions emanating from a convivial 70th birthday party for Geoffrey Tucker, an old-fashioned lobbyist from the days when lobbyists were gentlemen, that the anti-Hurd campaign was being discussed there. We did see, of course, the affable Lilley deep in conversation with Peter Stothard, the equally affable editor of the Times. But it surely could not be the case that such a relaxed conversation had anything to do with reports in Stothard's Europhobicnewspaper the following day to the effect that Hurd had been humiliated by Euro-sceptics at a cabinet committee meeting - a report that caused fury in the Foreign Office and led to ritualistic denials all round.
Wilkes's close chums on the Labour benches have voted Ann Widdecombe as the "most improved" minister; she's a hard-hitter, but she's brightened up her dresses, and is now to be seen tripping about the Palace in flattering two-piece numbers. They claim, however, a trifle ungallantly, that this is due to the fact she overheard what they were calling her behind her back: Doris Karloff.
One of the older jokes in the world of public service is to express amazement that there is only one Monopolies and Mergers Commission. But Wilkes is beginning to wonder whether there isn't a serious case for allowing a competitor into this particular market. His attention was drawn to the matter by Malcolm Wicks, the Labour Member, who has been giggling over the MMC's recently published review of 1994. The brief accounts of its investigations into such issues as the price of CDs, the marke t in condomsand newspaper mergers, are swamped by page after page of posed photographs of the MMC's staff. The MMC has, in short, been the victim of a makeover by some firm of rubber-trousered poseurs of the kind infesting too much of our public life. M r Wicks haswritten to its chairman, Graeme Odgers, saying he was amazed to find "that, presumably at some public expense, you have decided to send to MPs and others a Review which resembles more a mature men's fashion catalogue than a credible account o f your work. What on earth is going on?''
Now then, Wilkes has a little leak of his own to dribble in public which is, he submits, most revealing of the way our Mother of Parliaments really operates, particularly when there is a small majority and a rather large number of grand ex-cabinet ministers about. The letter passed to me by an old chum (not Douglas Hurd) is from Sir Fergus Montgomery, chairman of the Commons committee of selection, to Kenneth Baker, anthologist, television star and man of letters, appealing to Ken's better nature on theticklish matter of boring committee meetings.
It says: "Dear Ken, the whips tell me that you didn't appear for the statutory instrument on 23 January, nor did you get paired. This is the second time this year that you haven't turned up for a statutory instrument...
`'I have to tell you that other ex-Cabinet ministers do do their stint. I promise you that I won't ask you to do many, but if you are asked to go on the occasional one I would be grateful if you could help..." Grovel, grovel. Will such gentle blandishments be enough to tear Ken away from his literary and journalistic pursuits? I rather doubt it.
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