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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 July 2006, 14:16 GMT 15:16 UK
Commons Confidential: June 2006

By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

Despatches from the House of Commons


Labour MP Graham Allen has come up with a novel idea to re-engage people with the political process - run a competition to redesign the Commons Chamber.

House of Commons
Commons chamber is deliberately confrontational
He has written to Commons leader Jack Straw saying such a contest would "generate lots of ideas, involve a broad range of people in thinking about democracy and generate a lot of excitement and interest if done in the right way".

He suggests prizes for the best entry from a school, an architectural student or established architectural practice.

"Anything which seeks to re-establish the credentials of the House of Commons as a forum for the nation and restores its self-respect as the place where serious political debate should take place, will I hope be taken seriously," he said.

Now, this is not an entirely new idea.

The Commons first sat in something like its current form in 1547 when Edward VI handed over the royal Chapel of St Stephen in the Palace of Westminster for the purpose.

It continued in that form until 1834 when it was destroyed by fire and a public competition was run then to find architects to rebuild it.

The European parliament
European parliament avoids face-to-face approach
It was won by Sir Charles Barry who was assisted by Augustus Pugin - the man whose name is most usually connected with the neo-Gothic style of the place.

The next re-design came after the war, thanks to Hitler's Luftwaffe which levelled the chamber on 10 May 1941. It was rebuilt by the architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.

But the face-to-face, confrontational style of the chamber has always had its critics with those like Mr Allen who wonder if a more circular-style , hemicycle would encourage a more inclusive, grown up approach to politics.

Anyone who has attended meetings in other countries, or the EU, where such chambers exits, might argue with that assumption.

Still, it's a thought. And BBC's Newsnight is already seeking views on possible redesigns at

Jack Straw, by the way, is not encouraging. He has told Mr Allen that, while he has no problem with a competition, "I do not sense there is general demand for the current chamber to be redesigned".


What is it about the job of foreign secretary that inspires such a sense of shock and/or horror in ministers when they are handed the portfolio?

Margaret Beckett
Beckett was lost for words, except one
Margaret Beckett has revealed in a newspaper interview that, when Tony Blair told her she was to be made foreign secretary, the only thing she could think to say in response was a four letter word.

"He told me he wanted me to go on working on climate change issues but to do it from the foreign office. I was stunned," she explained.

Her reaction was "one word and four letters" beginning with an F.

But, I learn, Mrs Beckett is not the only politician to have reacted in such a way to this particular promotion.

Apparently when her predecessor, Jack Straw, was given the job he was also lost for words - apart from one four letter one, this time beginning with an S.

Now what I want to know is what word Mr Straw used when he heard he was being replaced by Mrs Beckett...


Parliamentary support is growing for an ingenious proposal to help save the planet, dreamt up by former Tory leader Michael Howard.

Michael Howard
Howard has a green scheme for tourists
He wants a scheme created under which British holidaymakers would pay a "tree tax" to compensate for the damage done to the environment by their flights abroad.

He told a tourism conference in Oman he had set an example by ensuring four trees were planted to compensate for the 3.23 tonnes of CO2 produced by his flight.

"It could become a matter of course to tell people when they book their holiday what the environmental cost is and how, if they wish, they can compensate for it."

The proposal has already won support from Lib Dem MP Bob Russell who said he went further.

"I actually grow my own. I have grown scores over the years and currently there are another 10 in pots on the patio at my home waiting to be planted this winter," he said.

And why stop at aircraft? Could this be the answer for all those persecuted Chelsea tractor driving mums - every time they do the school run they could plant a sapling. Perhaps a bumper sticker - "trees for tractors".


Why on earth do they do it?

Theresa May
May is saddened by demise of Top of the Pops

Politicians should never, repeat never, try to get on down with the kids. OK.

That's why kids make up their own language, specifically to exclude and confound embarrassing adults who try to.

The latest victim is the Tories' fancy footwear-loving Theresa May who, during Commons questions, lamented the death of Top of the Pops and had some fun at the government's expense over famous songs that had been performed on the show.

For example, she said, did Tony Blair remember seeing The Clash performing Should I Stay Or Should I Go.

Or what about John Prescott and Dire Straits' Money for Nothing, or Gordon Brown and the White Stripes' Every Day I Love You Less and Less - whoops, NOT by the White Stripes, Theresa. Your really should listen to your briefings more closely.

Labour's Ian Wright (who at age 34 is virtually a teenybopper in the Commons) couldn't wait to point that out, adding: "I think it demonstrates that in popular culture, as in other things, the party opposite have got it completely wrong."

He should have stopped there, but couldn't help himself. "On the subject of popular culture, I am tempted with reference to the Rt Hon lady, to refer to the Arctic Monkeys' song Mardy Bum," he said.

"But to be more gracious, I think it would be better to say I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor.

It was left to the wiser head of Commons leader Jack Straw to bring this to an end.

"It does show the dangers for those of us of a certain age - I am speaking for myself (he added hastily before Ms May's laser gun stare evaporated him) - in trying to pretend we have knowledge from a younger generation."

Quite. Or should I say, right on. Probably not.


This is one way for ex-Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy to take his revenge on the media for all those stories about him at the time of his resignation.

Charles Kennedy
Kennedy faced transport problems

Fleet Street's finest turned up at the Bromley by-election after being told Mr Kennedy would be campaigning in the area.

The visit came hard on the heels of a BBC interview in which he said he wished he had contested the leadership election because it would have removed the "question mark" now hanging in the air after the election of Sir Menzies Campbell.

But colleagues had made it impossible for him to stand, he declared.

So, interest in the man the party dumped in favour of Ming still remains high and there was much anticipation of seeing one of modern politics' best campaigners at work again.

Sadly, only a couple of hours before Mr Kennedy was due to arrive, embarrassed aides had to announce he would not now make it.

Disappointed reporters were told he had been at a family event in Surrey but got caught in traffic and was unable to get to the station in time.

Fortunately ever-ready treasury spokesman Vince Cable was able to step into the breach.


There was only one question hanging over the recent European summit - how much of the England game would Tony Blair be able to watch?

Peter Crouch and Steven Gerrard
Blair was in talks when Crouch scored
Thanks to comedian Eddie Izzard, we now know the answer. And it shows that Tony Blair can negotiate international deals and cheer on his country at the same time.

Apparently, he managed to do the business with Dutch prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende while watching Peter Crouch scoring for England.

Mr Izzard travelled with the prime minister to Brussels for the EU meeting and - apart from a couple of plugs for the BBC News website (always knew he was a man of judgement as well as huge comedic talent) - interviewed Mr Blair on the big issues.

So, had the PM been able to watch the match?

"I had to miss some of the match because one of the discussions was crucial and we had to be there," said Mr Blair.

But what about the good bits of the game - remember them?

"I had to see the Dutch prime minister because we were trying to get a deal together. He came in right in the middle of the football, just as Peter Crouch scored so I was watching the screen and doing the negotiation at the same time," confessed the prime minister.

All well and good - but can Mr Blair be sure exactly what he agreed to? If ever there was a moment the Dutch could have slipped something past him this was probably it.

So if you suddenly find pub and supermarket shelves packed exclusively with Dutch lager then you know who to blame.


A bitter new North-South clash has erupted between Labour comrades over the 2012 London Olympics, with the capital's MPs being branded a bunch of whingers who think the world revolves around them.

Olympics development in East London
Londoners will help pay for Olympics site
It all kicked off when the chairman of the all-party London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Group, Derek Wyatt, said Londoners should be given the chance to buy tickets for the event before they were put on sale to the rest of the country.

"Londoners will have to pay a levy to help support the funding of the games through the council tax. As a consequence, they should be given a window to both buy tickets and a window to participate in a ticket lottery (as happens at Wimbledon each year) ahead of them being placed on sale to the general public," he said.

"Furthermore Olympic committee should consider pre-allocating a set number of both the tickets and ticket lottery for each and every London borough," he added.

The idea immediately won backing from MP John Austin, whose constituency includes part of the Olympic area, who said: "The whole country will benefit from the games but Londoners will bear a disproportionate share of the costs through an additional levy on their council tax."

That was just too much for some northern Labour MPs who immediately hit back.

Jarrow's Stephen Hepburn told Gallery News, the parliamentary email news service: "Rubbish. If they aren't happy with it then give the games to the Geordies and we won't whinge about it.

"What about the disproportionate amount of UK taxpayers' money to be spent in London to support the games?

"Other regions of the country will lose out in order to support the games in London".

And Liverpool's Peter Kilfoyle agreed, saying: "I am fed up with whingeing London MPs who think the world revolves around them."

With another six year to go before the games get under way, this little spat can only escalate.

If only whingeing could be turned into a new Olympic event...


Tony Blair, as we all know, always really wanted to be a rock star and still picks up his guitar at the drop of a hat.

Tony Blair
Blair's rock star dreams may be behind him
It is destined to be an unrealised dream (presumably) - but not for his former "sound man" Finlay Morton, whose debut album and single are about to be released.

Finlay regularly travelled with the prime minister as the man responsible for the sound at his press conferences, often taking his guitar along with him.

On one notable occasion it was Finlay's instrument spotted on the tarmac that led to speculation that the PM was taking his guitar along with him on foreign trips, perhaps to entertain his hosts.

The PM will, I am sure, be amongst the first to buy Finlay's single "Billy Bird", to find out just how it should be done.


David Cameron is said to have asked Tory image makers to come up with a new logo for the party.

Blue roses
Blue roses have recently been cultivated

Apparently he has taken against the flaming torch symbol introduced in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher's reign and wants something more appropriate for the new look, compassionate Conservative Party.

After all, Peter Mandelson tore up Labour's highly-symbolic red flag and replaced it with a meaningless red rose, designed not to offend anybody.

A glance at the Tory website shows the banner is already being overshadowed by the latest slogan "Change to win. Win for Britain" enclosed in a couple of blue boxes.

They will probably want to do better than that though. And, helpful as ever, MPs are already coming up with their own ideas - with the famous, chameleon on a bike hot favourite.

But what about a blue rose to challenge Labour's symbol?

Like the Tories' hopes of election victory, the bloom has long been sought but proved near impossible to cultivate.

Until now - and they aren't THAT blue.


Tony Blair quite enjoys confounding the press, so could his little verbal "slip" during question time have been deliberate?

Tony Blair on a previous run
Blair was missing from the latest charity run
Here is what he told Labour's Andy Reed when he asked about the Westminster mile charity run, being undertaken by 100 MPs later in the day.

"I am taking part in the mile run in aid of Sport Relief, and my honourable friend is right to say that it is important.

"I understand that more than 100 honourable members have signed up to run. My briefing tells me to say that I hope that the sight of MPs in their running gear will encourage all people to participate in the run".

No doubt about it - he said he was taking part in the run. That sent sketch writers scuttling to the starting point, eager to spot the prime minister in running shorts - presumably surrounded, Madonna-like, by bodyguards.

Except, of course, Mr Blair was not taking part in the run and never had been, he was supporting the charity in other ways, explained Downing Street.

Much befuddlement, disappointment and frustration followed.

So was this just a slip of the tongue, a misreading of his briefing note - which must have said: "I am NOT taking part in the mile run" - or was he thinking of the time he did take part, in 2004.

Surely there can be no other explanation.


Downing Street spokesmen have done their best to pour cold water over claims No 10 is flouting the hosepipe ban during the drought.

Tony Blair and school children in Downing St garden
Blair's garden will remain lush
Apparently, gardeners are using a "bowser with a douser" to keep the plants healthy and happy throughout the summer which, according to the prime minister's official spokesman, is actually helping conserve water.

For those unfamiliar with this piece of kit, it is a large container (the bowser) with a hose and trigger mechanism attached (the douser) that can deliver water directly to the roots of plants, unlike hosepipes which waste a lot of water through spray.

The bowser holds the equivalent of around six watering cans-worth of water and is filled from a tap.

Downing Street is looking at ways of getting a water butt installed but has problems because it is a listed building and the lead water pipes cannot be interfered with.

The douser is powered by rechargeable batteries, another "green" advantage.

At least, this is what Downing Street "water sources" have revealed.

They also point out that, in any case, the gardens are exempt from any ban because they are part of the Royal parks.

So now we know.


Cyclists in the Palace of Westminster have been given a very polite "on your bike" message by the authorities.

Cyclists in London
Bike use in Westminster has increased
Perhaps it is David Cameron's example, but the number of cyclists in Westminster has rocketed to such an extent that there is no longer room for them all to park.

So notices have now been pinned to every cycle in the precincts, declaring they appear to have been abandoned and, if they are not removed within a month, they will be confiscated.

One bike rider was a bit taken aback at this tactic, claiming it must be an attempt to shock those few miscreants - including some MPs - who dump their cycles in the allocated spaces for weeks on end, to move them or lose them.

And she mischievously suggested that, as we are all green nowadays, it might be a good idea to convert one of the levels of the MPs' underground car park - where some expensive motors are also often left in storage - into a cycle park.

Don't hold your breath.


As the entire country seems gripped by the madness that is world cup fever, Eng-er-land flags - the cross of St George - are everywhere.

Tessa Jowell
Flying the flag for England
They can be seen flying from the windows of cars, vans and lorries (I've even seen them on motorbikes) right across the country.

And the latest has been spotted in Downing Street being flown by none other than the secretary of state for culture and sport, Tessa Jowell.

Asked by a reporter who she thought was going to win the cup, Ms Jowell gleefully gestured towards her official ministerial car, which is now flying the flags from its rear passenger seat windows, and declared: "There's only one England". Indeed.

Apparently the minister intends to keep the flag flying until England is knocked out of the contest. That's tempting fate a bit.

The prime minister, meanwhile, seems to have no plans to follow suit.

His official spokesman said Tony Blair is "proud to support England" but would do so "in his own way".

He rejected the notion Mr Blair was reluctant to show too much support in case he attracted the "Major factor" - former premier John Major claimed he stopped going to watch his team, Chelsea, because whenever he did they lost.

Tony Blair runs a Sport Relief Mile
08 Jun 06 |  Photo Galleries
Commons Confidential: May 2006
05 Jun 06 |  Politics
Commons Confidential: April 2006
02 May 06 |  Politics
Commons Confidential: March 2006
19 Apr 06 |  Politics
Commons Confidential: January 2006
01 Feb 06 |  Politics
Commons Confidential: October 2005
31 Oct 05 |  Politics

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