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Commons Confidential: January 2006

By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

Despatches from the House of Commons

This should bring the Dunfermline by-election alive, one way or another.

Charles Kennedy
He's back, and on the campaign trail
Ousted Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy has only just returned from a short break, eager to get back into the swing of things.

And what better than a bit of by-election campaigning on Thursday.

His reception will be closely watched for signs voters think he is the best leader the party has not got.


They claim it is an innocent coincidence - but an official leaflet from the Lib Dem candidate in the forthcoming Dunfermline by-election, Willie Rennie has raised a few eyebrows.

It claims the party can beat Labour's Catherine Stihler and declares "it's a straight choice", with the word straight underlined.

A similar leaflet was distributed when Lib Dem Simon Hughes beat gay activist Peter Tatchell in Bermondsey in 1983, amid claims of homophobia.

A spokesman for the Lib Dem campaign said the current leaflet was intended only to point out it was a clear race between their man and Labour, nothing else.


Sad to say that MPs appear to be failing a new honesty test.

As I reported a week ago, a London evening newspaper has placed an un-attended stand at one of the entrances to the Commons, offering copies of their journal to MPs.

An "honesty box" is attached, asking honourable members to cough up the cover price.

However, it has now been necessary to prominently display a sign pointing out that the paper costs 40p.


Could it be that Lady Thatcher is about to officially take her place alongside the political giants Winston Churchill, Lloyd George and Clement Atlee.

Lady Thatcher and cabinet colleagues
Is Lady Thatcher about to join other giants?
Few MPs witnessed it, but early the other day a half-sized cast of the former Tory prime minister was placed on the empty plinth in the members' lobby of the Commons - just outside the entrance to the chamber and where the other leaders' statues are sited.

After the piece was photographed by officials it was removed although I am told it was a very good likeness.

The late Labour MP Tony Banks commissioned a statue of Lady Thatcher when he was chairman of the Commons works of art committee, and wanted it placed in the plinth, but it was "decapitated" by a political protester when on loan to London's Guildhall.


Are we witnessing the opening shots in the first chocolate war?

After David Cameron complained about WH Smiths offering cut price chocolate oranges instead of fruit at their checkouts, MPs have launched a fresh assault on the industry.

Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski has tabled a Commons motion urging colleagues to boycott Cadbury's products because they are using French sugar.

He has so far won the support of fellow Tories Mike Penning and Bob Spink for his motion which states: "This House notes that Cadbury's are trialling French sugar in their products; is disappointed with the company's failure to use solely English sugar and support English sugar producers; and urges hon. Members to boycott Cadbury's products until the company stops importing French sugar".

Mind you, is he declaring war on Cadbury, the French or perhaps both?


Disgraced Lib Dem MP Mark Oaten is, at the time of writing, joint editor of the Commons in-house publication, the House magazine.

And he was independent enough to allow himself to be pictured inside the latest edition under the heading "Bad Week" for the collapse of his leadership campaign "amid lack of MPs' support".

This was, clearly, published before the weekend revelations... which gave the magazine's cover story an even more ironic twist.

The headline declares: "Hot pursuit. When the Media Attacks."

It was, needless to say, about education secretary Ruth Kelly's woes. But I'm sure Mr Oaten sympathises.


Oh for heaven's sake, that was above and beyond the call of duty - I've just seen Tony Blair naked.

Young Tony Blair (played by actor Christian Brassington)
The Channel 4 docudrama did not spare the PM's blushes
I have also seen him on the toilet, in underpants and Afghan coat, and prancing about in front of a full-length mirror playing air guitar and doing Mick Jagger impersonations.

It wasn't the real Tony Blair, needless to say, but an actor playing him with uncanny, if cartoonish accuracy in the Channel 4 docudrama (a word that immediately sets alarm bells ringing) Tony Blair, Rock Star.

The film covered those brief, youthful years when the prime minister-to-be apparently had only one thought in his mind.

Like so many other boys of his age, he wanted to be a rock star.

Specifically, if the film is to be believed, he wanted to be Mick Jagger.

The closest he got was at six gigs (that's what they call them you know) fronting the University band Ugly Rumours - as just about everybody and his dog knows.

A star was not born. And a few weeks later the young Blair, already regarded as one of the best actors of his generation by his old schoolteachers, stepped onto the Labour party stage.

I doubt very much that Tony Blair will have watched this film.

Would you want to be reminded quite so graphically, and almost certainly unfairly, of the most embarrassing bits of your youth - in Blair's case all loon pants, frilly open-neck shirts, "hip" affectations and puppyish optimism? Me neither.

And the makers were clearly not out to do the prime minister any favours, or spare him any embarrassment.

Yet, by the current standard of toe-curling, almost-too-painful-to-watch comedy - think Extras or Curb Your Enthusiasm - it fell short.


Ruth Kelly was always likely to have a roller coaster of a day. And it certainly started with conflicting omens.

With only minutes to go before she made her career-defining statement in the Commons on sex offenders working as teachers she received a bouquet of flowers from a well-wisher. That might have put a spring in her step.

But before she left for the Commons chamber, the driver of her ministerial car had a parking ticket slapped on his windscreen.


Now here's a good test of just how honourable our honourable members of parliament are.

A well known London evening newspaper has placed an un-attended stand at the entrance to the House of Commons offering MPs the chance to take a paper and leave the money in a box.

And, in a blatant attempt to shame them into coughing up, it is boldly labelled the "Honest Box".

Does anyone doubt their honesty?


Tony Blair's Respect supremo Louise Casey - the one who once spoke of wanting to "deck" Downing Street policy advisers, amongst other things - was given a lesson in respect herself when she gave a live webcast from No 10.

The event started more than 10 minutes late, which led one user, Nick to ask: "Does it not show some respect for your audience to appear on time".

"Fair cop," confessed Ms Casey, claiming a Downing Street "power cut" had been responsible.

Well, there wasn't a power cut in Downing Street as far as anyone can tell - perhaps someone tripped over a computer cable.


The Liberal Democrats have been sent into a flat spin over the alleged attempts by new Tory leader David Cameron to move his tanks onto their lawn.

They claim he is attempting to nick their policies, paint himself as a liberal and deny them their destiny.

So would-be party leader Sir Menzies Campbell may have cause to regret his choice of leadership campaign headquarters.

The building he has chosen near Westminster is shared by none other than the modernising Tory think tank, C Change, whose board of governors includes senior Conservative MPs Francis Maude (Chairman), Theresa May, David Willetts and Ed Vaizey - to name just a few.

If I were Ming I think I might get my office swept for bugs.


Gordon Brown has cast himself as the man who is determined to celebrate Britishness.

His plans for a day in which citizens across the land will be able to "embrace the Union flag" has met with plenty of support - and just a little cynicism.

One backbencher sidled up to me to suggest a more, let's say political reason why the chancellor is so eager to wrap himself in the flag.

"There's already an over abundance of Scots in the cabinet," he grumbled.

"Gordon is very aware of that and is nervous that, now we've got devolution, the English might just rebel at the idea of having a Scottish prime minister - so he wants to show he is as British as the next man," I was asked to believe.


One of the little perks MPs and their staff enjoy is the use of the underground car park in the palace of Westminster.

And in the past this warm, dry facility has been used as storage space for politicians' vintage or collectable cars which, in a couple of cases, were left in the car park, under wraps, for years.

But there is a mystery over the latest classic car which has turned up in the parking bays.

A 1953 Rolls Royce has now been parked there for some days - and nobody knows who it belongs to.

Worse, I am told it has no tax disc and it has been proving difficult to track down the owner.

So, if one of the wealthier MPs has mislaid one of his runabouts, I suggest he looks in the underground car park.


So the mystery remains - just how come Dewsbury MP Shahid Malik is so good at pool?

To absolutely nobody's surprise, Shahid won the annual Annie's bar charity pool tournament - although, as it turned out, he was given more than a run for his money by previous champ, Cardiff West's Kevin Brennan.

His victory came at the end of an evening that saw Glenrothes John MacDougall fall to Shahid in the semi final and Kevin beating minister Andy Burnham in his match (is that a wise move, Kevin?).

All the expectation was that Shahid would then romp home, despite the fact that Kevin is undoubtedly one of the best pool players in Westminster

Lost the plot

But Shahid had one of those moments that hit all players at one time or another and appeared to lose the plot - certainly the pot - going two down in quick succession and leaving himself the formidable task of having to win all the remaining three frames if he was to end victorious.

He managed it, but Kevin kept him on his toes throughout.

By now the gossip going around the room was that Shahid was more than a talented amateur.

At one point, for example, he told me the table they were playing on - provided by pool and snooker club operators Rileys - was of match quality.

"And how do you know that?" I asked. "Oh, it's just obvious," he replied unconvincingly.

Annual event

To raise suspicions even further, Shahid was then invited to take on Eva Linn Fossheim, the 1998 nine ball European champion, who had refereed for the evening. And he beat her!

And then the truth came out, thanks to the ever-entertaining MC, Ealing North's Stephen Pound.

"I have been informed that Shahid Malik is a hustler who only stood as an MP so he could take part in the pool contest and get his hands on the Annie!"

Well, it's a nice thought. But the truth is Shahid is just one of those infuriating people who happens to be extremely talented at pool after, as he admits himself, spending much of his youth practising.

And he thoroughly deserved the trophy presented to him by sports minister Richard Caborn, an enthusiastic supporter of the contest which is turning into one of the great annual events in Westminster.

Commons Confidential: October 2005
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