Wilkes of Westminster

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The Independent Online
After long years of sterling service in the House, Wilkes is being stared at oddly in Annie's Bar and the tea-room. Helpless giggling is the problem. Can't help it. Yesterday, for instance, HMG pompously announced that it was, er, after all, accep ting the main recommendations of the Civil Service Select Committee about public ethics - new codes of conduct for bureaucrats, all that stuff. This, despite the stout defence of the status quo put up by the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, and chums . Shows how deep in the slimy filth our ministers really are.

When I say that the ministers have accepted the main recommendations, I don't mean all of them. One is conspicuously ignored. The committee, chaired by the romantically-named Giles Radice - scion of Italian revolutionary immigrants, Labour MP, white hair- had naughtily suggested that it would be in the interests of good order for the reforms of governance to apply to the ministers themselves. There should be an audit of their efficiency and effectiveness, etcetera.

This, of course, sent Her Majesty's Empty Suits into a dreadful huff. Everyone knows that there are far too many ministers doing absolutely nothing useful, and that the only reason for them drawing salaries is that it allows the whips' powers of bribery to be greatly extended.

An audit of what junior ministers actually did would be hugely embarrassing: there is more of a feckless, helpless, taxpayer-subsidised dependency culture in the obscure corridors of Whitehall than on any northern housing estate.

So Wilkes has been happily going up to puffed-up little Ministers of State and telling them that an official audit is on its way. This sends them scurrying off looking ill and sets off those giggles which are getting Wilkes a bad name around the Palace.

But Wilkes is fundamentally a serious fellow. Indeed, he has had a religious experience. I was wandering late on Wednesday night through the Members' Lobby when an icy tickle ran down my spine and I heard the laughter of Eric Heffer, the late lefty, Christian socialist and scourge of Labour modernisers. Eric, it may be recalled, once started a Commons speech with the immortal immodesty: "I, like Jesus Christ, am the son of a carpenter.'' But why would his spectre be laughing so uproariously?

Now I think I know. The Almighty has come out for Clause IV. Or so, at least, the Christian Socialist Movement, of which the devout New Tony New Blair is a member, has decreed.

The God Squad's executive committee voted by 15 to three in favour of retaining the olde-worlde nationalisation pledge "as an expression of the vital principle of true socialism''.

And if there needs to be a change, say the faithful, the party constitution must refer to "the common ownership and democratic control of the productive resources of our society''. So, Christ no Moderniser, shock. I knew Blair had had a bloody January but it never occurred to me that the forces of socialist reaction had spread quite that far.

Now, here's a nasty image. Picture a bath - curling steam, loofahs, all the usual stuff. In the bath lies, prone, pink, perspiring, the naked form of Sir Teddy Taylor MP. Suddenly he begins to shake with uncontrollable excitement, leaps up, grabs a pen and starts writing feverishly.

This, Wilkes is informed by one of the whipless souls, was the origin of their anti-European manifesto, which has since become required reading in Downing Street and the Foreign Office, as everyone tries to work out how to appease the maniacs and get them back into the party.

If only Teddy had had a shower instead, how different history might have been.

One of those who has suddenly taken to wandering about the Palace rabbiting on about his surprisingly Eurosceptical views - particularly on the single currency - is Malcolm Rifkind.

The affable and once leftish Malcolm is desperate to get Douglas Hurd's job in the summer and is buttering up the anti-Europeans to spread his appeal. You might have thought that such behaviour would draw only a cynical smile from Major, J, who is deeplysuspicious of Rifkind anyway on the grounds that he's got a functioning cerebellum. Except, of course, that Major is up to the same game himself. But what do Hurd and Rifkind's ex-allies make of it? Not much. One senior chappie with close Foreign Officeconnections tells Wilkes that Rifkind is no longer Hurd's choice for the succession. This, presumably, is why.

Anyway, Riffers was slumped beside me in the tea-room, munching through the anchovy toast and pretending to be more of a gung-ho nationalist than Zhirinovsky after a case of vodka, when he let drop a fine example of the ex-leaderene's famous wit.

Going into a Cabinet meeting, the Great One was told Germany had beaten England at football and sadly advised that we would never hear the last of how they had thrashed us at our national game. At which point she icily retorted: "Then we'll just have to remind them that twice this century we beat them at their game ..."

No wonder she was reluctant to sack Nicky Ridley for similarly uncomplimentary remarks.