It's your big chance, Sir Malcom

SIR Malcolm Rifkind is being touted as the person the Conservatives need to lead them out of the political undergrowth. There's only one problem – he's not an MP.

SIR Malcolm Rifkind is being touted as the person the Conservatives need to lead them out of the political undergrowth. There's only one problem – he's not an MP.

The 1997 election saw Sir Malcolm consigned to the wilderness – and a money-spinning career in the financial world – when he lost his Edinburgh Pentlands seat in the great Labour landslide.

He failed to win it back in 2001 and the seat has been abolished in the general redrawing of Scottish parliamentary boundaries designed to reduce the number of MPs from north of the border.

Thus Sir Malcolm needs a seat, and the talk is that Windsor would make an ideal haven for him. With a majority of more than 9,000, it should be safe, even from the predatory claws of the Liberal Democrats.

But constituency associations and electors do not like party favoured sons and daughters being parachuted in. Long gone are the days of 1963 when newly chosen Prime Minister and hereditary peer Lord Home could renounce his title, give the existing MP for Kinross and West Perthshire a peerage, and stand in and win a by-election as Sir Alec Douglas Home.

The Tories dare not risk a by-election in Windsor, where current MP Michael Trend is in deep odour because of an expenses "misunderstanding" over claiming a cash allowance for a London home.

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But assuming the burghers of Windsor can be persuaded to return Sir Malcolm as their MP, the arrival back at Westminster of the man who was a formidable Foreign Secretary in John Major's government would be very welcome indeed.

It's one thing for Tories to decide he would be the ideal person to take them into the promised land, but how he would fare leading the party is anyone's guess. However, if his remarks this week calling on Britain and the United States to allow chief United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix to return to Iraq verify any find of chemical and biological weapons are anything to go by, the country would certainly take notice once again of the embattled Tories.

MEANWHILE Cabinet colleagues have eclipsed Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the popularity stakes, an ICM survey for the Guardian revealed on Wednesday.

While the Prime Minister and Chancellor remain favourites with Labour voters, they trail Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon among the public as a whole.

Confidence in Clare Short has collapsed after she failed to keep her pledge to resign as International Development Secretary – not unsurprisingly, she is still more popular than Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and Transport Secretary Alistair Darling.

If Mr Brown fails in his bid to succeed Mr Blair when the PM eventually resigns, it's entirely plausible to envisage Jack Straw moving across Downing Street from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to No 10.

But Geoff Hoon? Walberswick's most famous resident doesn't stand a chance.

CHELMSFORD West Tory MP Simon Burns has co-sponsored a Commons Early Day Motion honouring Mental Health Week, which started last Monday.

Mr Burns said: "For too long, and for Governments of all political parties, mental health, has been the Cinderella service of the NHS. Fortunately, over the past decade, that has been changing.

"In a civilised society it is important that we all work together to root out and minimise the stigma that is attached to those who suffer from mental illness.

"It gave me great pleasure and a sense of great pride to have co-tabled this motion with the Shadow Secretary of State for Health, Dr. Liam Fox MP."

POLICE numbers in England and Wales have risen by less than 4,000 in the 10 years from 1992 to September 2002, figures released in the House of Commons have revealed.

There were 2,898 officers in Essex in 1992, 2,928 in 1998 after Labour took office, and 2,988 last year, giving a 10-year increase of 90.

The figures for Suffolk were: 1,218 in 1992, 1,186 in 1998, and 1,228 in 2002 – a 10 year rise of just 10.

And while the strength of the Metropolitan Police in the capital has shrunk over 10 years from 28,154 to 26,868, Northumbria's constabulary strength is up from 3,464 to 4,006 and Greater Manchester's has risen from 7,061 to 7,352.

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