WILKES'S diary

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Ian Lang may have the sex appeal of a Scottish pallbearer to voters south of the border, but Wilkes hears that he is now The Chosen One. John Major's friends are saying in the privacy of their drawing rooms that the new President of the Board of Trade is the Prime Minister's preferred choice to succeed him when he goes. Mr Major has no wish to repeat Baroness Thatcher's mistake of going on, and on, and on, if - against all the odds - he wins the next election. He will stand down and tend his bank balance and, according to some close to Mr Major, will certainly have gone by the end of 1998.

The succession is therefore a live issue. Mr Lang is regarded by Major as sound in all particulars, and not easily pushed around by the right wing, which will be on the rampage once Mr Major goes. This is the last chance for the left to secure its influence in the choice of leader, while the right is still hopelessly split between Messrs Redwood and Portillo. Hence Wilkes advises buying shares in Lang.

He may have an exterior as long-faced as an Edinburgh terrace, but he is very good company over venison and chips and has an impressive humour pedigree, being a contemporary of the famous Footlights set, who went on to create Monty Python. He is also a wonderful mimic: if ever he did become Prime Minister, Rory Bremner might as well join the dole queue.

Wilkes is, of course, hedging his bets by putting money on Gillian Shephard. But remember you heard Mr Lang's name here first. After all, it makes compelling sense in one respect: if Labour wins the election and introduces a Scottish parliament, who better to mastermind a quiet U-turn in Tory policy by agreeing to retain that body than Lang - the man who 20 years earlier argued that an assembly was the way to revive Tory fortunes north of the border?

We would certainly be in the throes of the leadership battle now, say chums of the Prime Minister, had Mr Major not carried out his threat to call an early leadership election in July. And the challenger would have been the same Vulcan pretender. The Major camp believes that John Redwood, far from being forced by the sudden turn of events to declare his hand, was geared up to run - but only in November. And what is more, they believe he could easily have won had he had the extra time. Major would have had a dreadful summer and a ghastly conference dominated by the leadership issue, and Redwood would have carried out the coup de grace by resigning to fight for the leadership immediately after the Budget, thus wiping out Ken Clarke's big day at a stroke.

Major's allies believe Redwood was caught on the hop, which might explain why his tax-cutting programme looked so thin: it had to be cobbled together over a single weekend. It is a compelling scenario, but we may never know for sure.

Bleating noises have reached Wilkes's ears from the Cabinet room about what colleagues regard as the further self-aggrandisement of Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, First Secretary and Supreme Being. Her Majesty's Chief Minister for Titles has moved into temporary premises at the Treasury, pending refurbishment of his vast suite of rooms in the Cabinet Office. He has found a suitably immense room to his liking for the regular meetings of his Cabinet committee.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Wilkes hears, was amazed to discover this Treasury room existed and raised an eyebrow at the thought of the Supreme One moving into his territory. The Lion King sits in an imposing leather chair. Unprepared victims sink unsuspectingly into extremely deep and large sofas opposite. Those shorter in the leg find it difficult to bend their knees, let alone reach the floor, and need a block and tackle to haul them out again.

To put the rest of the Cabinet at their ease, the Sun King regularly chairs the meeting in a V-necked sweater - some uncharitable souls pointedly remark how his woolly matches his ability to grasp detail.

Wilkes can advise Labour not to bother reserving a seat on its benches in the House of Lords for Baroness Thatcher. Despite Tony Blair's overtures about respecting the Iron Lady, she will not be coming across. Thatcher has become a Majorite. She informed Wilkes at her "do" at Claridges this week (where she and the Queen again clashed over their choice of dress) that all her past differences with Major have been buried, and she will campaign for him at the next election. The Prime Minister's decision to roll out the red carpet for her 70th birthday party at Downing Street did the trick. "It was a total love-in," said an admirer.

There was an added fillip for Clare Short, Labour's wimmin's spokesperson, as she battled her way back into the Shadow Cabinet in Wednesday's elections. Her assistant Virginia Heywood won the sweepstake on the results of the increasingly ludicrous event. Wilkes finds it difficult to imagine Tony Blair will put up with it much longer.

Just deserts generally come to those who wait, Wilkes is reassured to learn. Sir Philip (Phil) Harris, carpet magnate, deputy chairman of the Conservative Party's board of treasurers and the man who bankrolled the hi-tech Sir Philip Harris House at Guy's Hospital, could be destined for even higher things. He is being heavily tipped by Tory peers for a seat in the Lords in the next honours list, on account of his fine record in raising money, which has helped a beleaguered Conservative Central Office reduce its overdraft from pounds 11.4m in August to a mere pounds 9.9m. He will also play a crucial part in building up a pounds 22m "war chest" for the election.

Deep mystery persists, however, about the future of Sir Basil Feldman, chairman of the National Union, the party's voluntary wing. Will he be passed over yet again? At least Wilkes's good friend Jeffrey Archer is well on his way to complete reintegration. Not only did he resurrect his fabled shepherd's pie and Krug parties at the Tory party conference last week - at which, incidentally, Wilkes was unable to spot Kenneth Clarke amid an otherwise full Cabinet turn-out - but he has re-instituted those fabled nationwide speaking tours. After 18 months out in the political cold, he is pulling crowds of up to 400 at meetings.

Perhaps the most extraordinary rehabilitation of all was that of John Profumo. At Lady Thatcher's birthday dinner, he and his wife were seated next to the Queen.

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