Friday 22 September 1995
Wilkes hears it didn't take long for Virginia Bottomley to get into self- aggrandisement mode in her new role as Heritage Secretary. She doggedly got her private office to track down Michael Cassidy, chairman of the City of London Corporation's policy and resources committee, on board his boat in the Solent, just off the coast from her Isle of Wight holiday home. "It's the Secretary of State," barked the mobile phone. "Which secretary of state?" a nonplussed Mr Cassidy is said to have inquired. The mission, so Wilkes is told, was to harangue the City into stumping up more cash for the Film Commission, thus enabling Mrs Bottomley to make a speedy good news announcement. With no particular vested interest in the partly government-funded project, the corporation has agreed to give pounds 25,000, and is strongly resisting La Bottomley's demands to dole out another pounds 70,000 or so to get it off the ground.
One of the high points of Wilkes's summer came at the end of August, when he travelled to Louth in Lincolnshire to see his old friend Sir Peter Tapsell MP adopted as the Conservative candidate for the new Louth and Horncastle constituency.
Sir Peter, who has been an MP thereabouts since 1966, delivered a fine speech on the honour of serving as a member of "the greatest institution that humanity has seen: greater and more beneficent in its example and influence, in my judgement, than the Papacy - its only possible rival". Sir Peter, who is a bit of an institution himself, is a dripping wet Tory Englishman who voted against Geoffrey Howe's 1981 Budget and nominated Michael Heseltine against Margaret Thatcher in 1990. He took the opportunity to sneer at Young Pretender John Redwood's admiration for Newt Gingrich's "essentially un-British" manifesto, Contract with America. "I respectfully suggest to some of my younger and very intellectual parliamentary colleagues that they reread some home-grown Tory philosophers before they go chasing after foreign gods." As for Mr Redwood's attack on "feckless single mothers", he warned: "Let us not try to over-simplify immensely complex social problems and, above all, let us not look for black scapegoats or female whipping- girls." Careful, Peter, careful.
The prospect of a Labour victory is now regarded around the City as a racing certainty. So much so that the public relations companies are falling over themselves to hire Labour people to open doors for them with the next Labour government. Colin Byrne, a former Labour press officer in the Kinnock period, is now at Shandwick in the City; and I hear Ian Greer Associates has hired Jonathan Hopkins, a former adviser to Doug McAvoy, the teachers' union leader.
The scramble for Labour talent is matched by the dash by Tory policy wonks for the private sector. Philip Coles, once a regional organiser, has gone to a rather more glam post at Burson Marsteller - via a spell at the RSPCA. And Neal Lawson, one-time lieutenant of Gordon Brown, is already well installed with Sir Tim Bell at Lowe Bell. One of the more intriguing moves in the marketplace was the appointment of Michael McManus, David Hunt's former political adviser, to Sir Edward Heath's private office. McManus now has the job of assisting the former PM in producing his memoirs. It is moving at a pace rather slower than the building of the Great Pyramid.
The Labour leader's "rebuttal" machinery went into overdrive when the Birmingham Post reported that Tony Blair had uttered the dreaded letters "SDP". The old Owenite party still provokes fear and loathing in the People's Party. Witness the hapless attempt by Derek Scott, Tony Blair's economic adviser, to gain a seat. As an SDP candidate, he fought Swindon in 1983. He has been in the Labour party for some years, having rejoined under Neil Kinnock. He was therefore just the chap to have a go at Worcester, the Tory marginal held by Peter Luff. But Labour has a long memory. Mr Scott, 48, director of European economics at the finance house BZW, who divides his time between the City and Mr Blair's office, was defeated by Michael Foster, 32, a lecturer in accountancy at Worcester College of Technology. Wilkes understands he finished a poor third in a six-strong field.
The ghastly conference season has to be endured before we can return to ya-boo politics across the Dispatch Box. The frightful Tories of Sutton and Cheam, the seat of Lady Olga Maitland, have submitted a motion for the Tory party conference poking fun at the Labour deputy leader, formerly a steward on board cruise ships.
"Mr Prescott may be reassured to know that should he tire of new Labour and its luvvies ... we can always find room for an accomplished waiter who makes a good gin and tonic." No doubt that passes for hilarity in Cheam.
The Prime Minister may be suffering from a trapped nerve, but he was said to have been in fine form yesterday hosting a bash for small businesses, and then afternoon tea - as unlikely as it seems - with Irish political journalists. It was the first meeting ever held with the Irish lobby, who flew over for the occasion. They were genuinely impressed by his commitment to the Irish peace process. "Forty-five minutes and he never told us a thing," said one afterwards.
Pity poor Kirsty Wark, Wilkes's favourite Newsnight presenter, who was on the spot at the Liberal Democrat conference. Having chaired an overheated debate on Monday between the factions in Ashdown's great party, she had the unenviable task of recording, with the benefit of autocue, her introduction: "The Liberal Democrat conference was today overshadowed by Tony Blair." Such was the booing and hissing from her audience of raging Lib Dems - never a pretty sight - that she was forced to utter the hated words four times before the recording was usable.
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