THOMAS CREEVEY HIS DIARY : Too busy not reading food reports

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Douglas Hogg has capped another disastrous week by refusing to kick at an open goal. Maybe he kicks with the foot he has broken.

Channel 4's distinguished programme The Goldring Audit offered him an interview about the farming industry on the show going out next Saturday. It would have been a prime slot to restore his flagging political credibility, and C4 insiders believed they had won the Agriculture Minister's agreement to be interviewed by Mary Goldring, the veteran current affairs journalist.

Not only is Goldring's standing in the business high, but she also actually agrees with the broad thrust of the Government's agricultural policy. Here was an opportunity to Hogg the limelight without all those horrid MPs shouting at him.

So, in the week of the first anniversary of the Great BSE Cock-Up, does he take it up? No, he does not. Presumably he is too busy not reading food hygiene reports that nobody sent to him.

n GUESS who was at Tony Blair's pounds 500-a-head fund-raising dinner the other night? Why, none other than the bulky figure of John Taylor, the deputy leader of the Ulster Unionists, whose nine MPs are all that stands between Blair and Downing Street. Was he just eating for Ulster, or is there a new rapprochement with Labour?

Mind you, it isn't very likely that the antiques-loving Member for Strangford paid for his own seat at the table. Many of the diners were sponsored by business. John Spellar, the shadow Defence minister, was there at the expense of the arms manufacturers. What Creevey would like to know is, who paid for Frank "The Appetite" Dobson's dinner?

The Conservatives' recent fund-raising Winter Ball cost only pounds 150. And you got Shirley Bassey. No contest, really.

JOHN Major may be planning a long general election campaign, but his ever-loyal(-ish) back-benchers are not. A random trawl of Tory MPs in the bars of Westminster last week produced near-unanimity. On this, at any rate. "Don't want to bore them y'know. I shall be having a three- week campaign, whatever the Prime Minister says," harrumphed a Conservative with a safe seat in the North-west. There won't be many of those on 2 May.

Not that there are many MPs about to ask. Most appear to have started their Easter holidays already. Westminster is a ghost town.

n SIGNS of nervous tension in the Tory camp. Sheila Gunn, Central Office's answer to media hit-man Alastair Campbell, was seen berating a hapless lobby correspondent after Prime Minister's Questions. The quondam girlfriend of serial womaniser Steven Norris MP was ranting about having a "relationship problem" with the newspaper in question, which is customarily thought of as a bastion of traditional Conservatism. Oh dear. If this is the best the Tories can do - with their friends - at this late stage, then the game is up.

THE untimely death last week of Jimmy Airlie, real-life working-class hero of Clydeside, brought back many reminiscences. Airlie was the best stand-up comedian who never went on the stage. He invented the "single transferable speech", suitable for all occasions, and pioneered joined- up shouting long before John Prescott mastered the style.

Airlie was once bargaining with Ford UK, and went into a one-to-one with the company boss. As he left the 60 or more suspicious, hard-nosed shop stewards, he popped his head round the door and reassured them: "Don't worry, lads, I shan't sell you out." Pause. "Not unless it's absolutely necessary, anyway." Then that infectious, gravelly laugh, which Creevey will miss.

n AND finally to Goodbye Corner, the service that despatches Tory MPs to obscurity, decent or otherwise. A fond adieu to Nirj Deva, the Conservatives' only black Member of Parliament. His majority of 2,000 in the West London constituency of Brentford and Isleworth looks certain to tumble to the discreet charms of Labour's Ann Keen.

Deva owns Sri Lanka, or quite a lot of it, anyway. In the register of members' interests, he lists family ownership of coconut, rubber and tea estates on the island. Oh, and a distillery. He also declares consultancies to cigarette makers Rothman, to the building firm Laing International, to a firm of loss adjusters, to a power station equipment maker and to the Turkish Cypriot Association of the UK. Quite how he finds the time to be an MP escapes me, though he was in the House last week for a Commons Cigar and Pipesmoking Club lunch. On National No-Smoking day, naturally.

His departure could set off a reversal of the unemployment figures trend. Deva is reputed to have the largest staff of any MP. Some say six, some say eight. What they do is anybody's guess.

What is certain is that Ann Keen, a former nurse who has fought the seat twice before, will not have such an entourage. If she has any problems, she can simply ask her husband, football-crazy Alan Keen, who is MP for the next-door constituency of Feltham and Heston. It is to be hoped that Brother Keen will not follow the example of uxorious Nicholas Winterton, who put down an Early Day Motion of congratulation to his MP wife, Ann, a while ago.

Paul Routledge

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