Wilkes's diary

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The Independent Online
Let no one stand up and say the British educational system is out of date. Wilkes has been much cheered to hear of the experience of the McLagan family. McLagan pere, or Graeme to his viewers, is the BBC chappie who got the first big leak of the Scott inquiry draft report on Monday, so dominating the political news. Much whuffling and learned questioning went on as to the constitutional import of this, what it told us about the role of ministers and so forth.

Imagine the surprise, then, of Joel McLagan, son of the above, when he arrived for his A-level exam on Wednesday to be confronted with a compulsory question on ... the Scott inquiry. On the same day the Independent was leaking more bits of the draft report on the role of Margaret Thatcher, the London Examinations Board A-level paper on government and political studies included a lengthy quotation from the Independent about - yes - the role of Margaret Thatcher. It went on to ask what the Scott process was revealing about the limitations on prime ministerial power and the state of British government; and it asked for views on how ministers and civil servants could be made more accountable.

Rumours that an ill-at-ease and vaguely familiar man in a grey suit sat at the back of the classroom with a splendid array of neatly sharpened pencils and coloured biros have not, thus far, been confirmed.

There are signs, Wilkes fears, of Tory unease about the great NHS reforms. The scene is Harrogate, where the NHS Managers' Conference is in full swing. These stout men and women, ushering our healthcare into the next century, were looking forward to a three-way question and answer session with Labour's Alan Milburn MP, Ivan Lester of the Liberal Democrats, and for the Conservatives ... er ... hello? No, 'fraid not. Not a single member of the ruling party was available to celebrate Mrs Bottomley's huge successes with the people at the sharp end.

Wilkes has always had a soft spot for the Gladstonian grandeur of the National Liberal Club. So he cancelled several engagements to attend a farewell party there for Olly Grender, the party's comely press spokesperson,whose goodbye speech was a little gem.

Dwelling on the fabled and frenetic energy of Paddy Ashdown, Ms Grender told how the party leader had once telephoned her at home from his Kennington redoubt at 3am saying that he had just heard an IRA bomb and commanding her to check with Scotland Yard, trawl through news agency wires, and prepare a statement for the waiting media. Are you sure? Ms Grender asked him; are you quite sure? For she had herself been awakened in not so far off Balham and thought that the noise had been a clap of thunder. Long pause, followed by great man's rueful laugh. Leader and aide retired happily to sleep.

Both agreed never to speak of their early morning exchanges again - until this week. In a nobly self-effacing gesture the party leader released Ms Grender from her vow of silence and generously allowed her to make it the highlight of her farewell speech.

As a long-time admirer of the great Iain Macleod, Wilkes is delighted to hear that the newly formed Macleod Group of left-of-centre Tory MPs is not quite the flimsy collection of dissidents and fly-by-nighters it has been depicted as by its right-wing opponents. They are all the sort of chaps who would vote for Michael Heseltine or Ken Clarke in preference to Michael Portillo. As well as some heavyweight backbenchers such as Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith, Sir Anthony Grant, and former Heseltine deputy Tim Sainsbury, are among the 37 MPs who have accepted invitations to join, as have stalwart ex-Cabinet minister Michael Jopling and Nigel Foreman, once Nigel Lawson's PPS, a former higher education minister, and accepted as one of the real intellects on the Tory backbenches.

If Wilkes were John Major, he would listen to these people from time to time - as well as to his so-called friends on the right. After all Major, too, regards Macleod as something of an idol.

Wilkes is puzzled. Why, in all the speculation about who will succeed the unlucky Jeremy Hanley as party chairman, does the name of Malcolm Rifkind never crop up? To be sure, the brilliant Scotsman wants to be Foreign Secretary if and when Douglas Hurd stands down.

The reason may well be that he doesn't enjoy quite the bonhomous personal relationship with John Major that a chairman ideally needs, late-night whiskies in Downing Street being the stuff of PM-Chairman intercourse.

Wilkes's money is still on Brian Mawhinney, very much a Major mate, and a rising star: Mawhinney would still like to be Northern Ireland Secretary but he would certainly not refuse the call to Central Office if it came. And those who say that the dour Ulster tones would not go down well among theparty faithful should note that the doctor has been doing more than his fair share of Area Associationdinners recently. At the East Anglia event a few weeks ago, he was given not one but two standing ovations.

New Labour, new TUC. Under the personable John Monks, the Congress house carthorse is moving rapidly into the 20th century. Mr Monks has even invited the Westminster great and good to a "summer party" in July next month at the Atrium, Antony Worrall-Thomson's fashionable feeding and watering hole in Millbank. Whatever next? General Council meetings at the Groucho Club?

Wilkes is alarmed to discover that a man bearing an uncanny resemblance to our dear Prime Minister has been spotted burgling houses in the village of Warboys, not far from John Major's Huntingdonshire home. He is apparently tricking old people out of cash and valuables (see artist's impression). The local constabulary reports that the villain tucks his shirt into his underpants and has been asking confused elderly people to make out their cheques to the National Debt.

Wilkes was recently in the country himself and hailed by a rather overweight red-faced man who called himself Honest Ken and claimed to be an old chum. As I was trying to put a name to the face, he pushed me into a hedge, jumped into a waiting Rover and made off with my wallet. When I told the Nottinghamshire police, I was curtly informed that they had had several million similar complaints. My long-time friend Michael Howard clearly has his work cut out.

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