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When Michael Fish tells you it's going to rain tomorrow, what do you get out, a sun hat or an umbrella? Before the hurricane fiasco (Fish didn't exactly advise us to get out the suntan lotion, but he certainly downplayed the extent of the storm), we would probably have taken him at his word, and still do to an extent (although that is probably because he has more computers to help him than in 1987). But what are we to make of another branch of the art - the economic forecaster who tells us the recession is over only minutes after admitting it had begun?

To answer the question, the Diary turned to Roger Bootle, chief economist at Midland Montagu, regularly heard on the Today programme and elsewhere. Not being an economist, I asked him to play it straight, cut out the CDs (certificates of deposit, apparently, not the compact discs I took him to mean) and tell me honestly when he first told us we were in recession. Six to nine months after we were, he said. Next?

Taken aback by his bluntness - I had already asked him when Norman Lamont would go, receiving the not very reassuring 'my record in the esoteric area of Lamont forecasting is pretty appalling' - I turned to the subject of the exchange rate mechanism. Did he get that right? It was a trick question, actually, knowing that he had refused to join the Liverpool Six, a group of economists who had written to the Times demanding Britain's withdrawal. Yes, he was right, actually, said Bootle, slightly to my surprise. 'They found my position difficult to accept, but they didn't explain in their letter how they would get inflation down. In the circumstances, we were right to go in and we were right to come out.'

So this art form is all about having it both ways, the equivalent of Michael Fish promising us showers with our sunshine? Or so I thought, until interest rates came up in the conversation. Only then did I recognise the science behind the blarney. Bootle convinced me he has rarely got it wrong when predicting rate changes, and I therefore strongly recommend that no one takes out a fixed-rate interest mortgage, for the time being anyway. Bootle says Lamont (if he is still around, of course) will lower the base rate by another point, to 5 per cent.

SIR RONALD MILLAR, former speechwriter to Margaret Thatcher, who has just brought out a book, recalls the ex-PM's tendency to take comments literally. Before her first conference speech as leader of the Tory party, he leant towards her and muttered encouragingly: 'Piece of cake.' He should have saved his breath. 'Good heavens] Not now,' she



Undaunted by its legal difficulties, the satirical magazine Scallywag is back on the newsstands, a prelude, I feel sure, to further discussions between its lawyers and the Prime Minister's solicitors, Biddle & Co.

The discussions may refer to a series of 12 photographs of Clare Latimer, the Downing Street cook, that are held by another publication. Angus James, Scallywag's managing director, tells me he has subpoenaed the photographs as part of the magazine's defence of the libel actions ( John Major and Clare Latimer have issued 12 writs against Scallywag, their printers and distributors). James insists the magazine will fight the 'bullish and censorial' libel actions. 'I don't see why printers and distributors should get penalised for what we put in the paper,' he said. Biddle & Co refused to comment.

WHILE John Major was asleep, Paddy Ashdown received the Newbury by-election result by telephone. 'We have a 22,000 majority,' the leader of the Liberal Democrats was told. A disbelieving Ashdown was quickly to the point: 'No, that must be the vote, not the majority.'


As Londoners endured their fifth bus strike in two months, BBC 2 viewers tuned into a documentary last night on the open-backed bus, hailed in the programme as 'a monument to its architects, London Transport'. I'm sure that's right, although the title was perhaps not the most apt part of the programme - Perpetual Motion: The Routemaster Bus.


11 May 1759 Denis Diderot writes to Sophie Volland about his visit to Marly: 'I wandered aimlessly through the park in a melancholy frame of mind. The others had gone striding ahead of us and we followed slowly, the Baron von Gleichen and I. I was happy to be with the baron (whose wife had recently died), for we both felt within us the same secret emotion. It is strange how sensitive spirits can understand each other almost without speaking. A chance word, a fit of absent-mindedness, a vague disjointed remark, a passing regret, an ambiguous expression, a tone of voice, a way of walking, a look, a moment of attention or of silence, all these give them away to one another. We said little; we felt a lot; we were both suffering; but he was more to be pitied than I. His eyes were often fixed on the ground; he was searching for someone who no longer exists.'