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Friday, 18 January, 2002, 11:18 GMT
Canberra and pigeons in firing line
Nick Assinder

Trade secretary Patricia "I'm no Blair babe" Hewitt is an Aussie and proud of it.

Unfortunately she is far from enamoured of the nation's capital and her home town, Canberra.

And, in what has all the makings of a nasty diplomatic incident, she has given the place a major thumbs down.

Earl's attack on Blair Tony Blair has taken a lot of flak for his recent globetrotting - but few have been as vicious as the Tory Earl of Onslow.

Speaking during a debate on the army in the Lords he declared: "Mr Blair goes prancing around the Indian subcontinent, heavily disguised as Peter Sellers, without the accompaniment of Sophia Loren, with a magic carpet on his head."

Just how many people can you insult in one sentence - the prime minister, his wife Cherie, large sections of the Indian people - and probably Sophia Loren and Peter Sellers' family as well.

According to Ms Hewitt, Canberra is the sort of one horse town that, to quote the song, looks better looking back.

She told startled political journalists in Westminster that she grew up in the town in the 1950s, "couldn't wait to get out" and has never looked back.

When asked what she had got against the place she quoted that other well known master of diplomacy, Prince Phillip.

"Prince Phillip famously came to Canberra and said 'city with no soul' - that's what I think."

Her comments will undoubtedly dismay the local tourist board which describes the capital as Australia's most talked about city.

It lies, the board boasts, in the middle of sheep country and kangaroos can often be seen in the city centre.

It now seems likely that when Ms Hewitt returns home to visit her mother she will be about as welcome with the locals as a rattle snake in a lucky dip - as they might say.

Preying on politics

A pigeon
Pigeons are on the run
Inhabitants of Westminster's Portcullis House - the expensive new home for MPs - have recently been taken aback by the sight of shadowy figures darting around the "rafters" in the elaborate, glass-roofed courtyard at the heart of the building.

It is even rumoured that the sightings are usually accompanied by unearthly screeching sounds.

But the ghostbusters can stand down. These eerie sightings are entirely natural - if a little unusual.

The courtyard is such a large, dry and airy space that the local pigeon population has made it their new home.

These disgusting creatures have been pestering the inhabitants ever since the place opened.

But the ever-ingenious parliamentary works department has finally come up with the answer - birds of prey.

Portcullis House
An ideal home for pigeons
Apparently a specialist company visits the building every month or so with a Kestrel or other raptor which is let loose to do what it does best.

According to my source the birds of prey fly around the building "scaring the droppings out of the pigeons, which soon get the message".

No one will reveal how many pigeon casualties there have been - but these are times of war after all.

Setting the pace

Meanwhile, as Mr Blair appears eager to break every record going for the most countries visited in the shortest period of time, he is facing a serious challenger.

The new permanent secretary at the FCO and head of the diplomatic service Sir Michael Jay is currently beating him.

While the prime minister has notched up 22 countries since September, Sir Michael's job has seen him visiting 25 countries in 5 continents in the same period of time.

Come on Tony, stop hanging about.

Wedding bells

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy and fiancee Sarah Gurling
Charles and Sarah break the news
It's been a long time coming, but Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy has finally popped the question to his long time girlfriend Sarah Gurling and the couple will wed in the summer.

Many in the party had almost given up all hope that Mr Kennedy would ever settle down and present the sort of family-friendly image apparently required of a party leader.

And there is no doubt Charles enjoyed the batchelor lifestyle to the full.

He was one of the most approachable of politicians, ready to drink and chat with his many friends and colleagues in Westminster.

And he was, and remains, guaranteed good company with a self-deprecating sense of humour and a dislike of pomposity.

It has to be said, there were times in the early mornings when the jovialities of the night before were clearly taking their toll.

But "good time Charlie" never showed signs of flagging. And his ability to enjoy himself - while remaining an essentially serious politician - has endeared him to many.

Everyone inWestminster wish him and Sarah well.

Little victories

The Tories scored a small victory last week when they staged a neat parlaimentary ambush and defeated the government in a late night vote.

The subject of the defeat is of minor interest but what has dismayed Labour backbenchers is the fact that they had been warning their whips that the Tories were planning something that day.

But Hilary Armstrong and her team - who are supposed to exert an iron grip on their cowed troops - brushed aside the warnings and let them go home.

When, at 2330, they finally realised something was up it was too late.

Aren't whips supposed to listen to their MPs as well as shout at them?

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).

See also:

27 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Queen opens Portcullis House
17 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Lib Dem leader Kennedy to wed
04 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Blair returns to new world order
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