Friday 21 April 1995
Ghastly goings-on behind the scenes in the all-party parliamentary group on race and community affairs have reached Wilkes's alert ears.
Anyone taking on the formidable Baroness Seear had better be sure of his facts, and therefore I tread cautiously into the fray. But the word around the tea-room is that the saintly baroness finally relinquished her chairmanship of the group this week in the midst of something of a force 10 gale.
There were two candidates for the chairmanship: Baroness Flather, who was ennobled by Baroness Thatcher; and Bernie Grant, the likeable lefty MP for Tottenham. The vote was tied, and they came to a consensus that they would share the chairmanship ... until the outgoing chairman intervened. The group was told this week that the vote was null and void because one MP who had taken part was not a proper member of the group.
Therefore, a new vote was held. It was made clear to Mr Grant and his supporters that the purpose of the vote was to install Baroness Flather. That might have explained the unexpected arrival for the meeting of some MPs who are not frequent attenders, such as Peter Lloyd, the former Home Office minister responsible for immigration.
Mr Grant tried to stop the vote taking place, but the momentum was unstoppable. Mr Grant's camp packed up its tent in some disgust and refused to take part in the contest. Baroness Flather was therefore elected unopposed, to take over from Baroness Seear. I fear this is not the last we have heard of the matter.
What John Redwood, the acerbic Welsh Secretary, has dubbed the "passion for reorganising" is still beating in the heart of the Health Secretary, Virginia Bottomley. Wilkes hears that even as criticism rained down over her announcement of the closure of Bart's in a written Commons reply, she was contemplating the use of the redundant hospital's ancient premises as, appropriately enough, a world centre for the study of ageing. She has set up a committee with the specific task of finding a future for the historic building, staffed by the likes of Lord Rees-Mogg, the former Times editor, who at 66, I suppose, could be regarded as a specialist on the subject.
Mrs Bottomley's decision ultimately to relegate Guy's hospital to an annexe of St Thomas' has meanwhile highlighted a unique combination of allegiances: Lord (Ian) McColl of Dulwich is both professor of surgery at the United Medical Schools of Guy's and St Thomas' Hospitals and John Major's parliamentary private secretary in the Lords.
The decision to give Guy's a temporary stay of execution - keeping open its accident and emergency department until 1998 - came in the wake of a private dinner between Mr Major and another big name, albeit trade, the carpet magnate Sir Philip Harris, the force behind Guy's £140m hi- tech intensive care and cancer unit at Sir Philip Harris House. Sir Philip made it pretty clear around Whitehall that he was extremely put out at the threat to leave his unit in mothballs.
Another intriguing combination here, too. Alongside his commercial and medical interests, Sir Philip is a member of the Board of Treasurers (fund- raisers, in simple parlance) of the Conservative Party.
Mrs Bottomley's return from her Easter holidays - taken as usual at the Isle of Wight retreat of her family, the Garnetts, and involving the traditional family hockey match - left her pasty-faced on her return to Westminster. Meanwhile, Gerry Malone, her health minister, spent his Easter hols with Andrew Neil, late of the Sunday Times, in France.
Hezza returned from his hols with a face bronzed from hours toiling in his spacious garden planting trees, looking ready for the leadership contest, should the men in grey suits march on Downing Street after the local elections.
But the most interesting Easter journey must have been that of the former Scottish Office minister Allan "Axeman" Stewart. Fresh from meeting Libya's Colonel Gaddafi in his winter tent, he has been going round the tea-room telling demoralised Tory colleagues that the colonel has great leadership qualities. He struck one as being a "powerful figure", the axeman opined. The locals refer to the colonel as "The Man Himself" and address him as "Leader" to his face. John Major should be so lucky.
Commons hols always give Wilkes the chance to catch up on his reading to see if colleagues are living up to their reputations. A perusal of the standing committee proceedings on the Criminal Appeal Bill found the Sutton and Cheam MP Lady Olga "Too Serious" Maitland taking herself too seriously yet again. Chris Mullin, Labour MP for Sunderland South, had provoked the lady's wrath by suggesting that Sir Ludovic Kennedy, former journalist, author and miscarriage of justice campaigner, should chair the planned new appeal body. Lady O, former diarist for the Sunday Express, had grave reservations about using campaigning journalists, although she was proud to have been a journalist herself. "Of a slightly different school," interjected Mr Mullin from the sedentary position. Lady Olga: "I am not talking about my schooling background but about my experience as a journalist."
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