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EDITIONS
 Thursday, 19 December, 2002, 13:26 GMT
A spin free Christmas?

BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder's new column, updated at lunchtime each day
| 1330 GMT Thursday 19 December|

More signs that the government has had enough excitement for one year and wants to keep its head down for a while.

Usually at this point in the calendar spin doctor in chief Alastair Campbell fires off a memo to all secretaries of state reminding them that - to keep a grip on the political agenda - he expects them to keep working.

No so this year apparently. As one insider said to me as he headed off on his break: "We're having none of that announcement a day rubbish this year."

So, no news is good news eh Tony. And a happy Christmas to you too.

We'll start again in the New Year.

| 1230 GMT Wednesday 18 December|

Tory shadow pensions secretary David Willetts may have two brains but he clearly couldn't engage either of them when faced with the challenge of making small talk with controversial Muslim cleric Sheikh Abu Hamza.

This is the man who runs the North London Central Mosque in Finsbury Park and is facing removal from his post for his "extreme and political" statements.

The two came face to face before appearing on BBC Newsnight and, faced with the formidable figure, Mr Willetts blustered: "Well, have you got a pension yet."

When that went down like a Salmon Rushdie novel, he bulldozed on: "I have a lot of supporters in Birmingham, I believe you do too."

At this point, the cleric fixed him with his good eye and declared: "My supporters are everywhere."

| 1200 GMT Monday 16 December|
After the press officer hell that has been Cheriegate you could forgive the prime minister's official spokesman Godric Smith if he had lost his normally ready sense of humour.

Godric and his boss Tom Kelly bore the brunt of the accusations over lying from Number 10 and Mrs Blair did eventually admit to "misleading them".

The prime minister's official spokesman Godric Smith
Smith still has wit
At one point both of them looked close to the end of their tethers.

However, despite looking like he needs a good long Christmas holiday, Godric still displays the odd sparkle.

Questioned about a weekend newspaper story that the prime minister was cutting back on engagements to spend more time with a shellshocked Cherie he coined a phrase that is destined to enter the handbook for journalistic putdowns.

"That," he smiled: "was a case of Sunday journalism meets Mills and Boon."

| 1230 GMT Friday 13 December|

With "Cheriegate" refusing to die the death, the last thing Tony Blair wants is to have the press conference at the end of the EU summit in Copenhagen turned into an embarrassing circus.

This is supposed to be an historic meeting about the future of the European Union and there will be some weighty announcements at the end of it.

One of the reasons Mr Blair has been so determined to close down questioning about his wife has been to avoid the situation he has previously found himself in, where European leaders and media have been forced to watch in angry dismay as the press conference descended into clash over a purely domestic British issue.

But Downing Street has confirmed that the prime minister will attend the press conference and will find an excuse to duck out early.

Should be interesting.

| 1200 GMT 12 December|
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott - is as has been said, as far as it's concerned, but not his fault, are too many words tumbling out - can be hard to understand.

His convoluted language has been the butt of numerous jokes but, I fear, the condition is contagious.

It has now spread to his office, which appears engaged in a campaign to give the Campaign for Plain English a nervous breakdown.

This is the start of a recent press release from the office of the deputy prime minister.

"Housing Minister, Jeff Rooker has announced today that the Audit Commission is to undertake an independent scrutiny role in relation to the preparation and subsequent delivery of the strategic market restructuring schemes that each of the low demand pathfinders is required to prepare for turning round their areas."

Well I hope Lord Rooker knows what it is he's supposed to be doing - and to whom.

| 1230 GMT 11 December|

The first lady has sung and so has her husband - so Downing Street think it's all over.

If there was ever any doubt, it has now become clear that the tearful performance by Cherie Blair was designed to give the government the excuse to end the questioning over her dealings with convicted conman Peter Foster.

Her statement was aimed straight at the public, over the heads of the much-hated media, with the aim of making anyone who now dares asked a question about the affair - no matter how legitimate - look like a bounder.

Prime Minister's wife Cherie Blair
Cherie made emotional speech
And those questions will now be angrily batted aside.

Downing Street spokesmen, who got into trouble by speaking on Mr's Blair's behalf in the first place, will say no more. You can't really blame them after the way they were made to look like liars by the prime minister's wife.

But ministers are also determined not to answer any inquiries insisting the blood-thirsty media had been given what they wanted by Mrs Blair.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw twice told one of Downing Street's new "open and transparent" televised briefings that he would not answer questions on the affair.

So that is the end of that then. And, frankly, it may well work.

Questions over when and what Mrs Blair knew about Mr Foster's background before she took his financial advice, over the administration of her blind trust and over her role in the deportation proceedings will go unanswered.

But then, Downing Street has calculated that no one really cares.

| 1230 GMT 10 December|
Loyalist Labour MPs and ministers are desperate to portray Cheriegate as a non-story which is actually angering voters who see it, as does the prime minister, as an attempted character assassination.

One senior MP from a northern seat joined the chorus of anger at the media before telling me quietly that his local party was actually dismayed by Cherie's behaviour.

One of his local officials put his finger on it when he declared: "What in heaven's name is a lifestyle guru anyway?

"That lass has spent too much time in London."


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