Today's instinctive Tories on the run

THOMAS CREEVY his diary
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The Independent Online
Who said BBC Radio 4's Today programme was a nest of secret socialists, hell-bent on wrecking John Major's chances of a fifth consecutive Conservative government? It begins to look suspiciously like the other way round.

Francis Halewood, deputy editor of the "broadsheet newspaper of the air", has taken the money and run - to work at Tory Central Office. The word at Westminster is that he will "mastermind the general election campaign". Oh dear. This will not please Chairman Mawhinney, who was thinking of doing a spot of masterminding himself, around May or even earlier.

Described as a large, jovial Kiwi, and a "civilised luncher", Halewood, 53, may bring a new sense of relaxation to frenzied Smith Square. Officially, his job title is Operations Manager, and yes, now it can be told, "instinctively I am a Tory voter"- though he has hever belonged to the party. His contract is for the election campaign only.

By contrast, the new top man at Today, John Barton, has introduced a Spartacist note, turning up on his folding bicycle after the long bus ride from Oxford early each morning. He listed his influences in the New Statesman as Tom Paine and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, which some regard as a dour socialist tract.

Another secret from the innermost circle of power. According to Colin Brown, political correspondent of the Independent and author of Fighting Talk, the first biography of John Prescott which appears next week, the Deputy Labour Leader has the understandable habit of falling asleep during shadow cabinet meetings.

Unfortunately, the Big Man also snores as he cat-naps. Fortissimo. He once nodded off in Durham Cathedral and shook the rafters like the Almighty. How much more impressive, then, must his performance be in the wood-panelled confines of the shadow cabinet room. In one session of the cabinet phantome, as the French call it (a detail supplied by my colleague Alan Watkins), he was snoring merrily and woke with a start to hear Tony Blair asking anxiously, "John, I'm not boring you, am I?" There's only one answer to that. Wisely, Prescott didn't give it. does not bulk large in Creevey's world, but it would be unforgiveable to deprive you of this. Why is Sir John Hall (Geordie North, Shop Till You Drop Party), the Newcastle United boss, known as "turtle"? Because he always says he is "turtally behind" whoever is his manager at St James's Park. Then why did he settle for Kenny Dalglish when he really wanted Bobby Robson?

The headline would be "Tories Not Millionaires Shock". A whole bankroll of Tory MPs are complaining that they are not as rich as we are told. Sunday Business last week published a a list of the 50 most wealthy MPs. All but three were Conservatives. They ranged in moolah-might from a piddling pounds 3m to Hezza's pounds 200m fortune.

Well yes, up to a point, Lord "I Can Afford the Odd" Copper. Trouble is, many of them deny being in the big money. Example: Bernard Jenkin, huntin', shootin', opera-lovin' MP for Colchester North, is claimed to have a personal fortune of pounds 75m, making him the fifth richest man in the Commons. He is hopping mad. "I am not even a millionaire," he says bitterly. "This is the worst-researched piece of journalism I have ever seen. It is utter rubbish." It seems he has been confused with his brother-in- law, who used to be big in Lord Rayleigh's Dairies, but hasn't been for many months.

By the same token, Vivian Bendall, MP for Ilford North (Startling Hair Tendency), for whom the description garagiste might have been invented, is supposed to be worth pounds 22.5m. "If only," sighs his secretary. There looks like some elision here between his management of a property company and his ownership of said properties. And old Etonian Harold Elletson, MP for Blackpool North, a fell-walking opera buff, disclaims his alleged fortune of pounds 5.5m. And so the whingeing goes on. The "outed" MPs are muttering darkly about "doing something".

These are, of course, serious allegations. But perhaps not in the way intended. What is the point of having Tories if they are not rich gits, cunning enough either to hang on to money they inherit or prise out of a gullible public?

And what do you think the wags at the Northern Ireland office call Sir John Wheeler, Minister of State in charge of security in the province? Behind his back, they refer to him as "Derek", after Derek Wilton, the wimp on Coronation Street. There is a passing physical resemblance, but Creevey cannot vouch for any more substantive parallels. Except that Wheeler, a former prison governor, once wrote a book about coins. That's pretty wet. Presumably our jail-loving numismatist will share the same fate as the Street's best-known prat come polling day: being written out of the show. His Westminster North seat has disappeared in the constituency boundary changes, and no one else appears to want him.

There must be a word that signifies the opposite of "doughnutting" - the practice of Tory MPs clustering round a front-bench minister to make it appear on television that he is speaking to a crowded and attentive House. If only someone could think of it, the term could then be applied to David Willetts, the disgraced ex-Paymaster General who made his rehabilitatory speech during last week's debate on the Finance Bill. As "Two Brains" got to his feet, the benches around him mysteriously emptied. To raucous Labour taunts, he ploughed on regardless and then hurriedly left the chamber, in defiance of the convention (laid down by Sir Patrick Cormack, naturally) that an MP who speaks should stay for the next two speeches.

Guerrilla warfare at Westminster? Don't kid Creevey. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are supposed to be ending all co-operation with the Tories. Just watch out for the ambush, they say. Really? The truth is that MPs are doing quiet hole-in-the-corner deals with their opposition pals to make sure they can slip away early. How else to explain the empty green benches as early as Wednesday and the queue for cabs in Palace Yard?

Paul Routledge

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