WILKES'S DIARY

Kremlinologists in the Conservative Party bunker tell me it was no accident that Baroness Thatcher (Happy Birthday, my dear) found herself beside the Prime Minister for Ken Clarke's speech to the party conference yesterday. Wilkes finds it hard to believe, but it was the first time on record that the Prime Minister and his predecessor have sat together on the platform.

It was carefully stage-managed by that wily Ulster matchmaker Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman, to emphasise continuity and unity. Lady Thatcher sat on Mr Major's right, while Ken Clarke, Margaret's Brutus, sat on his left. All that was needed to complete the happy picture was Sir Edward Heath. But the canny old buffer understandably thought better of making up the numbers.

He was already safely back in the comfort of Cathedral Close, Salisbury.

Of course, as Father of the House, my redoubtable friend Sir Edward has no need to adjust his sails either for the Prime Minister or today's birthday girl. Indeed, it is not lost on Sir Edward that the death of Lord Home gives him even more gravitas. He is now the senior former prime minister, putting one over on Baroness Thatcher.

And he will not be sorry to miss John Major's keynote speech today in Blackpool. Sir Edward has little stomach for the Nuremberg rallies in the Conservative Party conference hall, having witnessed Hitler address the real thing. After the event, the young pro-European Heath was introduced at a reception to some of the German party leaders, including Himmler. "He had a very watery handshake," Sir Edward remembered. Wilkes observed it was like John Gummer's. "I have never shaken John Gummer's hand," said the former prime minister.

In the rush for safe Tory seats did Tim Collins, former Central Office director of communications and briefly Downing Street political adviser, jump too soon in securing the plum and deeply beautiful Westmorland and Lonsdale? The constituency is one of the most beautiful in the country, but far away from Westminster. Sad for poor Mr Collins, he headed to distant parts before the frequently untrousered transport minister Steven Norris announced that he would stand down from his Epping Forest stronghold, no doubt to spend more time with his secondhand cars. The constituency association chairman is none other than Di Collins, mother of Tim.

Wilkes has an idea for the Millennium Fund. Never mind spending it on refurbishing village halls. It should be used to create a permanent audio- visual exhibition of Michael Heseltine's past conference speeches. During his performance this week Wilkes was suddenly impressed by the thought that he was witnessing the end of an era for a politician aptly dubbed Widow Twanky. Hezza in full flow is as remarkable as the Niagara Falls and ought to be preserved for the nation.

This conference is not like 1986, when the Tories turned the tide. There is a whiff of decay about. A team of Labour Party activists is going to try to get the message across to the Cabinet this morning with a 40ft- high quotation from the Blair speech, all about the Tories wrapping themselves in the flag while destroying the fabric of society. It will be written in the sand outside the main conference hotel on the Blackpool Prom. It is to be hoped they have studied their tide tables correctly. Otherwise, it could be a wash out.

Michael Dobbs, the former Tory vice chairman, has done it again. His House of Cards, about a prime minister ousted in a party leadership election, was turned into a BBC drama on the eve of the fall of Margaret Thatcher. Next month (starting on bonfire night), the BBC starts its serialisation of his The Final Cut. Mr Dobbs's powers of prediction are undimmed. The Final Cut features a character called Tom Makepiece, who crosses the floor of the House, unable to stay in the same party as the cynical, manipulative Francis Urquhart. Come to think of it, Alan Howarth does look a little like a bit-part actor in a TV drama.

The tough-talking Hezza clearly has a disciple in the diminutive but sturdy figure of Gillian Shephard. For the first time in her life, Mrs Shephard objected to the size of her hotel room, and effected a swift change to something a little larger than a broom cupboard at the Imperial Hotel. At last, Gillian is showing real signs of leadership tendencies.

Sir George Young travelled to Blackpool by train on Monday, and was asked by a customer services operative to fill out a questionnaire about the Poole to Edinburgh cross-country service. Under "occupation", he dutifully wrote out "Secretary of State for Transport". The next question was: "To whom to you report?" Sir George was going to put "The Queen", but then consulted his political advisers. After discussion, he wrote "The Prime Minister". No doubt the InterCity employee who received the form muttered to him or herself, "Another nutter", and filed it in the bin.

Like most right-thinking people with medals in his top drawer, Wilkes's normally robust stomach was left uneasy by Michael Portillo's performance, in which he verbally donned the sandy beret of the SAS.

His macho performance has been the subject of much ribald comment among the drinking classes at Jeffrey Archer's splendid parties. One young turk in the Tory high command told Wilkes it was "sexploitation with military hardware".

It was all too much for one old soldier in the Tory high command, who said the Defence Secretary had funked his chance to serve his country by refusing to join a military cadet corps when he was a youth. Wilkes believes Mr Portillo's lack of a military record may come to haunt the young pretender. He will never be a Major.

Ken Livingstone, who is doing a film for LWT, doorstepped Mr Portillo with a film crew as the Defence Secretary arrived at the Savoy Hotel, Blackpool, to address the annual dinner of the Thatcherite Conservative Way Forward group. "I've been exchanged for Alan Howarth," said Ken brightly. Mr Portillo was not amused.

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