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banner Thursday, 21 September, 2000, 09:43 GMT 10:43 UK
Assinder at the seaside

By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

The battle to run the national lottery has not exactly been brimming with cameraderie and goodwill. To be blunt, it has turned into a bitter dogfight.

But, in the latest twist, I can reveal that two senior Lib Dem figures are at the heart of the rumble.

In the yellow corner we have Charles Kennedy's long-term girlfriend Sarah Gurling.

The ex-Lib Dem councillor is now turning a buck by advising the snubbed Camelot organisation.

And in the other yellow corner is none other than Olly Grender MBE.

Ms Grender is the former aide to ex-Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown but now works for the PR firm LLM Communications.

Her top client at the moment is none other than Richard Branson's favoured - by the government at least - People's Lottery.

Now let's keep it clean girls.

Blowin' in the wind

The Lib Dems' youth spokesman, Lembit Opik, has an unusual personal obsession which, I fear, must be revealed to the wider public.

Lib DEm MP Lembit Opik
Gimme that harp boy
When he took the platform at a fringe meeting at the party conference the other day he duly took out of his pockets the heavier items - mobile phone, glasses case and so on - and neatly lined them up on the table in front of him.

And there, nestling in the middle was - a harmonica.

Apparently Mr Opik has been a keen "harp blower" for eight years or so and his great hero is Larry Adler.

Wherever Lembit goes, his harmonica goes with him and he spends much of his spare time practising his technique.

And yes, he does know the definition of a gentleman - someone who knows how the play the harmonica, but doesn't.

Wise words indeed

Mr Opik clearly has a very wise father who, he tells me, regularly offers him bits of political advice.

One of his favourites, which all politicians would do well to heed, states: "Sooner or later even the best strategy has to degenerate into action."

Under the counter

Politico's, every MP's favourite bookshop, caused a minor stir at last year's party conferences by selling a range of underwear from its stand bearing irreverent, not to say vaguely obscene, political slogans such as "a hand up, not a hand out."

One of the range even had to be sold under the counter at the Lib Dem conference for fear of upsetting the wife of the former leader Paddy Ashdown.

It bore the slogan "Pantsdown", a reference to the affair to which he was forced to confess many years ago.

Keeping them under cover
Needless to say the item was still on sale again this year - and still under the counter.

The garments were still attracting great attention and former candidate for London mayor Susan Kramer was spotted browsing the stall.

She, of course, is far too loyal than to be seen buying the Ashdown underwear.

Instead she selected two little numbers, one carrying Ann Widdecombe's famous words when describing her former boss, Tory Home Secretary Michael Howard - "something of the night."

The other sails far too close to the wind to be repeated here.

When challenged over her purchase a mildly embarrassed Mrs Kramer insisted they were for her 23-year-old daughter Abigail.

That's what they all say.

Finding a way out

Debates at party conferences can, to put it mildly, be a bit dull.

But one delegate at the Lib Dems rally found a new way of passing the time while colleagues made worthy, but life-threateningly-boring speeches from the platform.

With no sign of embarrassment, the anorak-wearing delegate carefully unfolded an Ordnance Survey map and proceeded to study it in fine detail.

You can make up your own jokes about looking for a new way forward and so on.

Noises off

Live radio broadcasts from the exhibitions area of party conferences are fraught with hazards as external chatter and other "off stage noises" are always likely to break in.

But I'll lay a pound to a penny this has never happened before.

A senior party member was being interviewed just inches away from a group of weary looking journalists when, in the deathly silence that only ever falls when something deeply embarrassing is about to happen, one of the hacks declared to an unsuspecting nation "I was so drunk last night when I got to my hotel room I was sick in the bath."

Speaking out

Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy has always had a good line in self-deprecation.

The latest story he tells against himself relates to a conversation he had with Tony Blair towards the end of the fuel protests.

Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy
Kennedy backs recall
He asked the prime minister if he was contemplating recalling parliament to debate the crisis.

Mr Blair said he thought, on balance, probably not.

But Mr Kennedy suggested that, perhaps he would like to re-think and, if he could see his way clear, recall MPs on Thursday 21 September.

"Why that particular day," asked Mr Blair.

"Because then I wouldn't have to make my end of conference speech," he declared.

Bob who?

Remember Bob Maclennan the former leader of the SDP - later merged with the Liberals - and now the Lib Dems' "shadow" minister for the constitution, culture and sport?

No, still can't picture him. Well don't worry, you are not alone. He never made much of an impact - despite being one of the pivotal forces in forging the Liberal Democrats - and now even his own party appears to have forgotten all about him.

His name mysteriously failed to appear in the list of the party's front bench team printed in the official conference guide.

Not even a footnote in history, it appears.

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