THE DIARY: I bet that Cheshire Cat smile will grate

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here is nothing quite like a bank holiday for getting all the work done, so on Monday I ground away in my study unpestered by telephones or division bells. I was hugely happy at the end of it and celebrated by taking my priest to dinner at the local Pizza Express. The music was so loud that I asked him to speak up a bit and was then disconcerted when he yelled his opinions of the Tory party in to a sudden silence.

Father Michael Seed is an entertaining dining companion, but the conversation was more sombre than usual as we both mourned the illness and approaching death of Cardinal Hume. His impact on Catholicism in this country has been enormous and he has retained the respect of all political parties and all denominations as well as that of a notoriously fickle press over a quarter-of-a-century.

The reason lies in his genuine holiness. He did not want the job and was dragged from his peaceful monastery to do it. I hope that in the hunt for the Pope's successor the Vatican has the sense to look beyond the circle of bishops and to search among the religious orders and among devout parish priests as well. Above all I hope they rule out anyone who actively wants the job. That way we can be certain it will be vocation and not ambition that drives the next Archbishop of Westminster.

n

ON TUESDAY, at Health Questions, I asked Frank Dobson why the Government was proposing a 65-hour week for junior doctors. He told me there was no such proposal. Humph. I happen to have the Brussels document ... The row over junior doctors meant a round of the media starting at six in the morning. Do people really want to think about politics then? If so, I must have spoiled their cornflakes with visions of exhausted doctors and dead patients, but I was out-angered by the doctors themselves. The Government's glib promises on the Health Service have backfired badly, so perhaps soon we might persuade them to a more grown-up debate.

ON WEDNESDAY I visited the Wellington Hospital, where I found happy, motivated staff and first-class equipment. Of course, it helps that in the private sector managers are just allowed to get on with it instead of being bombarded with 10 directives a day. The hospital takes some NHS patients as well as private ones and helps with training. I am more convinced than ever that public/private partnerships are the way forward.

Later, Prime Minister's Question Time produced some delightful fireworks and we left in good heart because William's rockets took off and landed on target. The PM smiled as usual but disappeared like the Cheshire Cat, leaving only the grin and nothing much else behind him. I would wager a guinea or two - I never deal in euros - that when the electorate gets fed-up with him that smile will be a source of immense public irritation.

In the evening, after shadow cabinet, I went to the terrace for a reception given by Benenden school, which is in my constituency and is famous for having educated Princess Anne. Today's girls are charming, confident and ambitious and a lot of those present were going on to study politics. I suspect that one or two of them might be my colleagues before I retire.

Before the final Division of the evening I sought out a glass of whisky with colleagues. They all seemed optimistic about the local elections. Indeed, on my own canvassing round I found the disillusionment with Labour had prevailed even unto Merthyr Tydfil, the equivalent of the Conservatives finding them disgusted in Tunbridge Wells.

n

THE OPTIMISM was justified. In the early hours of Friday morning I returned from the Maidstone count where my principal pleasure had been watching the excited reaction of a new Conservative councillor who had just taken one of our target seats. I remember my own election to Runnymede Council more than 20 years ago when I must have looked as full of happy triumph and anticipation as she did. Congratulations, Councillor Stirk: no wonder your mum was smiling too.

In Central Office the mood was ebullient as we took council after council to the chagrin of the BBC, who kept telling us what an awful night the Tories were having. It reminded me of 1992 when the BBC were still telling us that the Conservatives were heading for defeat long after any child with an abacus could have told you we had won an historic fourth term.

The results also show the importance of a steady nerve. All the brouhaha about alleged splits in the Tory party following the Lilley speech had nil effect on crosses on ballot papers. There is a world beyond Westminster and it is increasingly looking once more to the Conservatives.

In the evening I went to Plymouth, where I once fought David Owen, for a Conservative Ball. I contested Devonport in 1983 when David Owen and David Steel jointly led the SDP and everyone was talking about how British politics would never be the same again. Where are the SDP now? In 1983 and in 1992 Labour were held to be forever unelectable and where are they now? Despite the clear lessons of history there are still those who say 1997 destroyed the Conservatives. They are wrong. Thursday's elections have proved that things are returning to normal.

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