Wilkes's DIARY

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The spell-check on Wilkes's Westminster computer offers the following alternative to Lamont: Lament. How appropriate. The mere sight of the man sends his former colleagues running from the tea rooms.

Wilkes's chums made no secret of their contempt for Lament on the night. Their rumblings started a hunt by the lobby hacks for the senior minister who described Lament as a "total shit, a spotty little runt".

The hacks believed they knew the minister's identity, but they wanted to clarify whether he had said "spotty runt" or whether he had meant "spotty rump". (Let no one accuse Her Majesty's parliamentary press corps of anything less than total devotion to accuracy when it matters.) In the end, they settled for runt because it was less complicated.

The stubby finger of suspicion pointed at Nicholas Soames, the wonderful minister for our gallant armed forces and MP for Crawley - memorably described in the chamber by a Labour member as ``the Crawley food mountain''. One of his chums, Michael Mates, said that if it was Nicky Soames, he could not have meant spotty. "He must have meant snotty - it's the way he speaks, you know.''

But Lament himself was in thoroughly unrepentant, jovial form; he reminds Wilkes of an indiarubber, bouncing back from the most horrendous scrapes with his cheery grin undisturbed. He asked some serious questions about the European escapade and he isn't going to rest until they are answered, let the world say what it will. But hasn't he gone too far this time? Wilkes asked him. Can he really bounce back? To which Norman merely replied: ``If you've gone too far, always try to go a little bit further.'' He paused to consider, then added:``What, just a little bit? I must be getting old.''

Wilkes is a great fellow for the peace dividend. Swords into ploughshares, tanks into tumble-dryers, all that. But hasn't the MoD gone a bit far with RAF Bentwaters, the bloody great US Air Force base near Ipswich? There's 2,000 acres of it which used to fly F1-11s and those A10 tankbusting planes that had such a good outing in the Gulf war. Now, in a sign of the times, it's been sold off to the Maharishi Foundation, which plans, apparently, to base a World University of Natural Law there, starting off with a couple of thousand students and rising to 4,000 over the years. The same lot who've lived in Mentmore Towers in Bucks since 1982, they are doubtless keen to try out the effect of the giant runways on their yogic flying. This interesting addition to our national defence capability was revealed by Nicky Soames, the Defence Minister, to Labour's defence spokesman, David Clark.

Wilkes isn't sure he approves of swapping military flying for yogic flying, but it's probably reassuring that if we aren't protected by F1-11s, we've at least got rays of cosmic beauty on our side.

Rare event, this: hacks are signing a round-robin to try to save the job of a Whitehall spin-doctor, sorry, press officer. Pat Wilson, number two at Health, is, Wilkes learns, in the firing line. His Secretary of State, Virginia Bottomley, is rumoured to be panicking at her crumbling public image, including a savage campaign against her by the Evening Standard. So it's "shoot the messenger" time. Wilson has been told his job is being regraded upwards and he can apply for it in open competition - an open ruse, his mates reckon, to get rid of him. Wilson's boss, Romola Christopherson, director of Bottomley's news department, is a former No 10 heavyweight, who learnt the black arts under that mound of poisoned suet, Sir Bernard Ingham. She would be too dangerous to fire, Virginia is said to reckon - unlike Wilson. Well, Wilkes has the same fantasies of being given a decaffeinated enema by Nurse Bottomley as most red-blooded members of the 1922 Committee, but I think she should be very careful. Her stock is falling in No 10, and it has nothing at all to do with the quality of her press officers.

Funny how people can be so misunderstood. The other day, John Redwood was intending to make a speech which was warmly supportive of the Prime Minister's vision of a Britain of warm beer, old maids cycling across village greens to church, and cricket. He thought he would make the point that, while the Prime Minister had spoken lovingly of the kind of Britain Major Senior can feel at ease with, the younger element, such as that represented by Major Minor, feels equally at home with cold lager and satellite dishes.

The Secretary of State for Wales, otherwise known as the Minister from Vulcan, is occasionally criticised for lacking that human touch. Restaurant- owners complain that bowls of soup instantly congeal when he crosses the threshold - that sort of thing. But anyway, he was trying to make the point that Britain is a dynamic economy, capable of changing with the times. He was understandably miffed when the press took this as a veiled attack on the Prime Minister. He was doubly miffed because he had taken the precaution of giving a copy of the speech to Downing Street in advance. The Prime Minister's office passed it with one slight amendment. It took out the reference to the Prime Minister's vision of warm beer etc ...

Michael Howard has inadvertently invented a new genre: the chairman's reply. The Home Secretary was using the most common device in British politics to get out a statement, namely a letter to the chairman of one's local party, in order to declare his determination to crack down on crime and get a grip on the lawbreakers. The letter to the chairman is widely recognised as a means of providing a convenient platform for cabinet ministers to sound off, usually in their local paper. So, usually, these messages from the cabinet minister are taken as read.

Unless, that is, you live in Folkestone. The Home Secretary's local chairman was so startled to have a rip-roaring letter from Mr Howard that he decided to write back, thanking him for the letter - but wondering why he had been the target for this verbal outburst.

Somebody should tell him.

Mo Mowlam, the vivacious Shadow Secretary for Northern Ireland, was seen hopping into a cab outside the Commons at lunchtime yesterday, obviously in a rush. A very short while later, she was seen getting out of the cab and going into Rodins, a Westminster restaurant, where she was due on the live lunch-time television programme with Maya Evan. Total distance of the taxi ride - about two furlongs or, in the modern parlance, 400 metres.