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Friday, 23 March, 2001, 12:31 GMT 13:31 UK
Tell-tale signs an election looms

By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder.

Further evidence, if any was required, that the general election is just around the corner:

  • Both Labour and the Tories have already handed out accreditation forms for their daily election press conferences.

    These are the early morning "red-eye" events in which the main parties try to outmanoeuvre each other and set the agenda for the day.

  • John Prescott has appointed the battle-hardened former Labour fixer Mike Craven as his election spin doctor.

    Craven has worked for Prescott and the party many times before and is always resurrected when the going gets tough.

  • Half the party drones based in Westminster, where they usually service the parliamentary Labour party, have been hauled back to the Millbank Tower headquarters.

    Their main role is to work on the election campaign and, in particular, get the Excalibur computer system - also known as HAL - up and running.

    This is the formidable database which played a major part in Labour's last campaign.

    Millbank tower
    Towering inferno
    It holds vital information, such as which way the party believes individual journalists vote.

  • Millbank has been populated by numerous eager teenagers who responded to recent advertisements suggesting there was a great career ahead of them if they worked for a second Labour victory.

    Hopefully, they read the small print which pointed out that, the day after a second Blair victory, their services would no longer be needed.

    Room for manoeuvre

    Liberal Democrats fed up with their leaders' love affair with the Labour party are not amused by the revelation that the party's daily election conferences will be held in Local Government Association House.

    It seems an innocuous enough venue - apart for the fact that it was once the HQ of the Transport and General Workers' Union and is to this day known as Transport House.

    If that wasn't bad enough, the press conferences are being held in the Bevin room.

    The irony of this has not been lost on the Lib Dems, and one senior spin doctor even suggested that the room should be temporarily renamed the Gladstone suite - don't hold your breath.

    Innocent until proven guilty

    Europe minister Keith Vaz is under immense pressure to resign after sleazebuster Elizabeth Filkin re-opened her inquiry into his affairs.

    Europe minister Keith Vaz
    Vaz has Blair's full support
    But his mate Tony Blair has stuck to him through thick and thin, insisting he has done nothing wrong, has answered all the allegations made against him and is very good at his job.

    In fact, Mr Blair's official spokesman Alastair Campbell said this about the Vaz affair: "The prime minister goes on what is right and what is wrong.

    "In the end, the judgement the prime minister makes is whether the person can do a good job and whether any wrongdoing has been proven."

    That will come as a great surprise to Peter Mandelson who was sacked by the prime minister at the height of the cash-for-passports affair even though Mr Blair said at the time - and has repeated since - that he never believed his best mate had done anything wrong.

    And the very day before he was dumped, Cabinet Secretary Richard Wilson told Mr Blair there was "not a shred of evidence" that Mr Mandelson had done anything wrong.

    Jobs for the boys

    Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy has always had a problem with his profile because not enough ordinary punters know who he is.

    And apparently, not enough Liberal Democrats know who he is either.

    When he and his admittedly small entourage tried to walk though the auditorium at the party's Spring conference in Torquay a party jobsworth - and believe me Lib Dem jobsworths are a special breed - stopped him.

    Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy
    Kennedy: not amused
    "Sorry madam," he said "You can't come through here without a pass."

    An aide leapt to her leader's defence: "But this is Charles Kennedy and he is on his way to do a TV interview which will be live in 30 seconds," she pleaded.

    "Oh well", he replied, "If he works for the BBC then that's alright."

    On the Razzall

    Lib Dem peer Lord Tim Razzall is, you might think, aptly named after receiving a particularly saucy pager message over dinner in Torquay.

    It read: "please call Suzy for the wildest weekend."

    It should have read: "Please call Suzy from The World this Weekend."

    Gossip

    If you have any political gossip or information on what our MPs are up to, e-mail Nick Assinder (all mails will be treated as confidential).

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    See also:

    22 Mar 01 | UK Politics
    Vaz defiant as inquiry starts
    21 Mar 01 | UK Politics
    Elections still on - Blair
    17 Mar 01 | UK Politics
    Kennedy's 'laid back' liberalism
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