Wilkes's diary

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The Independent Online
Wilkes has learnt that Sir Norman Fowler, former Tory party chairman, is being tipped to run for the chairmanship of the all-important 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs. The current chairman, Sir Marcus Fox, is being challenged by the silent-but-deadly upstart Bob Dunn, who wants to stiffen the 22's backbone and its right-wing resolve.

Sir Norman is to be invited to run by the centre-left Macleod Group and leading members of the One Nation group. His name emerged at a dinner of the One Nation Tories, even as the rival right-wing 92 Group was holding its own annual dinner.

The 92 Group, Wilkes understands, was split over whether to support Mr Dunn or Sir Marcus. The Old Buffers backed Sir Marcus. The younger Thatcherites backed Mr Dunn. The left of the party is hoping that Sir Norman will agree to run, and come through the muddle in the middle. His only weak point is that he might be thought a tad too close to one J Major.

The announcement that Michael Heseltine is to go into the private London Clinic for the removal of kidney stones on 13 November was seen around the Commons last night as a possible explanation for his below par performance from the despatch box on Tuesday.

The First Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister did not look too happy at question time in the Commons against John Prescott. Of course, Wilkes was cheering for the Lion King, but it rather seemed from the backbenches as though Hezza had lost his roar.

No one will be wishing him a complete recovery more ardently than Mr Prescott. The deputy leader of the Labour Party has a vested interest in Hezza's self-aggrandisement at 10A Downing Street. The more Hezza inflates himself, the more Prezza hopes to inherit when Labour wins power.

Prezza is looking to Hezza to revive the equivalent of George Brown's Department of Economic Affairs - the long abolished ministry which challenged the power of the Treasury. That would allow First Secretary Prescott, post-election, to inherit a possible lever over Labour's Chancellor, Gordon Brown. The Shadow Chancellor will have nothing to do with such rubbish. If flowers and grapes are sent to Hezza's substantial private room by Prezza, he will know what is afoot.

Incidentally, Wilkes hopes Hezza will not try to get fit by going jogging with his new Parliamentary Private Secretary. Following the deserved elevation of his former PPS, Richard Ottaway, to the whips' office, the Lion King's new bag carrier is none other than Seb Coe, the Olympic 800m and 1500m gold medalist.

The aforementioned annual dinner of the staunchly Thatcherite 92 Group at the St James's Club was one of the most convivial evenings Wilkes has spent with his cohorts in the Banzai Brigade. The knights of the shires proved they are a match for Lady Thatcher's younger disciples.

Sir George Gardiner, the Group's snake-like chairman, proposed that the "grey suits" who will be retiring at the end of the current Parliament should stand down immediately from various coveted Tory party backbench committee posts so that the group's young turks could be installed in the imminent round of elections. The highly conspiratorial Sir George is thinking ahead - with an eye to ensuring that the Thatcherites retain their grip on the backbench committees after the general election.

Leading by dubious example, he sent round a note before the dinner saying that he would be standing down as 92 Group chairman (which, conveniently, he will continue to be until next year), with the expectation that others would follow suit.

Imagine his horror when the good knights refused to fall on their swords. Wilkes joined the rebellion of the Old Buffers by throwing buns at the leadership of the 92 Group during the soup course. Whatever happens, Sir George will still keep his hands on the levers of power. The man most likely to replace him is his lieutenant, John Townend, chairman of the finance committee of Tory MPs, who this week published his own barmy Budget, including massive spending cuts. One such was the proposal to slash the British Army on the Rhine. The defence minister, Nicholas Soames, was telling friends last night that rumours of Boris Yeltsin's demise has sounded a swift death knell for that idea.

Wilkes does, however, have an entirely serious tip for the Budget: a concession on the road-fund licence for veteran car owners. Sadly, this has come too late for Peter Butler, the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Chancellor, who has had to sell his beloved touring Bentley, the kind of motor that made Britain great, because of the running costs. He is left with two Austin Sevens. In spite of their honest pedigree, they are not in the same league as the old Bentley. So much for friends in high places.

Wilkes is mortified to report that the Tory party officers of Kensington and Chelsea are a shower of boring, safety-first neanderthals. They have earned this name-calling by failing to elect any of Wilkes's chums as their next election candidate for the seat.

Tragically, Alan Clark is out of the running after offering them his celebrated CV, complete with reasons for and against picking him to represent them at the next election. He included in the "against" column the little matter of his being a self-confessed womaniser. They were amused, but not sufficiently so to let his name go forward to the final six.

The questioning of the candidates was, by all accounts, bizarre. Melinda Libby, who should be given a Tory safe seat immediately, was asked whether she thought all journalists were louche. Ms Libby is married to one.

The House Magazine - Parliament's in-house journal/gossip sheet - hosted a splendid party in the Churchill War Rooms at the back of the old India office, giving Wilkes an unmistakable impression that he was back in the bunker behind the sandbags again. Wilkes was delighted to see among the guests the flame-haired Lady Hollis, the Labour peer who, it was rumoured, helped to persuade Alan Howarth to leave the Tories for her party.

So febrile is the atmosphere in the Tory party that anyone seen chatting to her these days is regarded as a candidate for desertion. So let Wilkes reassure the whips that Peter Temple-Morris, the leader of the dripping wet Macleod group of Tory MPs, has no plans to defect to Labour. He's too left wing.