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Last Updated: Friday, 29 October, 2004, 11:17 GMT 12:17 UK
Commons Confidential: October 2004
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Daily despatches from the House of Commons

|1215 BST 29 October|

Labour Party chairman, the diminutive Scot Ian McCartney, hs just appointed a new special advisor, Blair McDougall.

Not only does Mr McCartney consider Mr McDougall a first rate operator but he has great fun with his name.

He has told friends he just loves the idea of being able to yell abuse at his new aide along the lines of: "Blair, do this. Blair, do that" and, of course: "Blair, you are b****y useless".

Just what the prime minister or Mr McDougall think about this is not recorded, but they can both rest assured the chairman is only teasing.

1000 BST 28 October

Foxes, as everyone knows, are cunning beasts and can find a way into even the most well-protected hen house.

Until now, however, they were not generally known to have an interest in politics.

Yet staff in the Commons were astonished when they discovered one wandering around the corridors of power as bold as brass.

Having literally out-foxed all the heavily armed security officers patrolling the building, Basil - as he quickly became known - was eventually trapped before he did an Otis Ferry and stumbled into the Commons chamber.

The RSPCA were called and the animal was eventually escorted from the building.

But it left the security staff scratching their heads over how on earth he could have eluded them and their high tech gadgets in the first place.

Perhaps there is an opening there for soon-to-be-redundant hounds.

The conspiracy theorists, however, have their suspicions.

Basil was discovered on the very day the Lords were discussing the hunting bill.

Coincidentally, another fox (assuming it was not the same one, of course) was discovered in the Lords in February 2001 - also when the controversy over hunting was at its height.

I smell a rat - sorry, a fox.

1630 BST 27 October

If you want to know when the next general election is going to be held, just ask Tory Chairman Liam Fox who has "officially" called it for next 5 May.

The MP was being interviewed by US broadcaster CNN and was pressed about the likely date for the poll.

He said that, like just about everyone else in Westminster, he had pencilled in 050505.

"Are you sure," asked the interviewer.

"Well, I am fairly sure that's when Tony Blair will hold it," he declared.

And, as he left the studio he looked at the TV monitor to see "Breaking News - UK election set for 5 May."

So now we know. Has he told the prime minister?

Dr Fox also told a lunch for political journalists and guests that Britain was now watching the dying days of Blairism.

"And there's at least one person in this room who will say 'good' to that."

Without hesitation, maverick Labour backbencher Stephen Pound shouted: "Who are you looking at?"

What could he have meant.

1330 BST 25 October

I know climate change is worrying many people who believe we are about to be fried, frozen, or flooded - or all three.

But Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy must have taken the apocalyptic film "The Day After Tomorrow" a bit too seriously.

His latest speech to party activists went under the title: "The fear of climate".

Or at least it did until aides pointed out it should actually have read: "The climate of fear".

That's a relief.

1050 BST 22 October

When former Olympic runner, now deputy Liberal Democrat leader, Menzies Campbell entered the Commons 17 years ago he understandably joined the MPs' gym.

He readily admits to being a highly competitive individual and threw himself into his exercise regime with a certain amount of gusto.

However, he now reveals he was put to shame by the behaviour of party leader and former Special Boat Squadron member Paddy Ashdown.

Paddy catapulted himself at the gym's equipment in such aggressive and powerful style that he actually broke it.

Never a man to mess with.

1100 BST 20 October

Bumbling Boris Johnson is without doubt one of the few genuinely entertaining and enjoyable characters in an otherwise grey House of Commons.

However, his magazine's "Liverpudlians wallow in their victim status" article has lost him a few fans - or has it?

Anyone attempting to check on the Boris Johnson Fan Club website is currently presented with the message: "Sorry, this website is temporarily unavailable."

Apparently the site has "exceeded its allocated data transfer".

Is that a surfeit of fans desperate to read the latest news about Boris, or others eager to give the site their own views about the man with the haystack hair?

1215 BST 19 October

Michael Howard's support for the war on Iraq has regularly seen him criticised for being sidelined in the row over its prosecution.

Now it appears even the Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan, can't find time for him.

During his visit to London, Mr Annan is set to see the Queen, the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Foreign Secretary, the International Development Minister - and Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy.

Tory central office confirmed, however, that as far as a meeting between Mr Annan and Mr Howard was concerned there was "nothing in the diary."

An oversight, surely.

1245 BST 18 October

It is a problem many modern couples experience at dinner parties - how to introduce each other in an appropriate fashion?

The issue has been made sharper by plans for civil partnerships (presumably as opposed to old-fashioned marriages which are often very uncivil indeed).

Tory spokesman Alan Duncan has wrestled with the dilemma, declaring: "It is a problem of modern manners that the term "partner" has many meanings these days.

"It can mean a business partner, a casual boyfriend, a girlfriend or someone in a longer-term relationship."

And in a personal campaign to find a new term to cover civil partners he is offering a bottle of pink champagne to any MP who can come up with an answer.

What's wrong with the now established form when introducing such a person as an Erum - as in: "Hello, I would like you to meet my, er, um..."?

1000 BST 14 October

Tory vice chairman Patricia Morris tells a delightful tale about the day she recently entered the Lords as Baroness Morris of Bolton.

Making her maiden speech this week, she told Peers that, on the day of her introduction, her mother was seriously ill.

"She had insisted, with characteristic selflessness, that I went ahead with the arrangements. It was not easy, although it did have its lighter moments.

"On the evening before my introduction, when I was sitting with my mother in the Royal Bolton Hospital, a nurse took me to one side and said, "Mrs Morris, your mother's become very confused.

"She thinks you're going to London tomorrow to become a Baroness".

1000 BST 13 October

The Tory party already faces jibes it is a purely English party - worse, that it is a purely southern English party.

And party bosses readily admit one of the big tasks at the next election is to re-establish a presence outside that "ghetto".

So imagine the dismay, indeed horror, when the normally gaffe-free leader, Michael Howard, pretty much wrote off the north of England during remarks in the wake of the Hartlepool by-election disaster.

Michael Howard
Straight talking from Mr Howard

In an exclusive interview with the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle Mr Howard declared: "In order to win the general election, we don't have to win seats in northern cities like Newcastle. We can do it without them."

The sound of Tory officials' jaws hitting the floor could, I am told, be heard right across the country.

Apparently the leader's spin doctor, Guy Black, rapidly slipped a note to Mr Howard which probably read something along the lines of: "You do realise you've just written off half the country for us!".

Old smoothie hardly broke his stride before correcting his error and adding that the party would campaign very hard to revive its fortunes in the region.

1100 BST 12 October

Now the conference season is over, party bosses have started the annual post-mortem to work out how they can be "improved" next year.

As abolishing them entirely (best option) or allowing them to make even a tiny difference to party policy (second best option) seem not to be on the agenda that inevitably boils down to how they can be better organised.

Ribble Valley's Tory MP Nigel Evans, cannily spotting one of the main reasons people still bother going to these events, has already come up with one winning idea.

He has pointed out that there are so many receptions and drinks parties provided by lobbyists, industry, the media and so on that it is impossible for even the most hard working MP to manage to get around them all.

His suggestion - that some of the parties should not start until midnight.

Cut and run
Well, it's official - there will not be a general election in November.

How do we know? Because Tony Blair said so when he addressed a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour party on Monday night - sort of.

Probably wise as his speech coincided with the 30th anniversary of 1974's autumn election when Labour PM Harold Wilson sought to turn his minority government into a majority.

Mr Wilson was confident of a majority of anywhere up to 20 seats - as it was he managed just three and was forced to describe his government as "viable".

Write on
If the political parties are looking for ways of appealing to future generations of voters - or even just for some good ideas to steal for their manifestos - they could do worse than watch the progress of the second annual Parliamentary Press Gallery essay competition.

The contest, created last year to mark the 200th anniversary of the day hacks were allowed into the Commons, is broken into two age groups, 10 and 11 and 12 and 13.

The first group need to write a letter to one of the party leaders suggesting ideas for the manifesto, the second should write an article for a newspaper arguing how the parties could attract first time voters into the polling booths.

The winners will spend a day in Westminster and meet the prime minister and Speaker of the House.

Details at www.parliamentarypressgallery.org.uk

1300 BST 11 October

Once upon a time, the Egg Marketing Board had a wonderful ad campaign fronted by Tony Hancock with the slogan "go to work on an egg".

Edwina Currie
Mrs Currie became Hell's Kitchen star
In 1988 then Tory minister Edwina Currie discovered it was more a case of "go to the Job Centre on an egg".

After her now-famous revelation that most British eggs were infected with salmonella she was forced to spend more time with her family.

Her outburst not only ended her government career - and sent her in the direction of Hell's Kitchen - but also hurt the industry which, at first, refused to accept the level of the problem.

She was, of course, absolutely correct - but since when was that any excuse in politics.

Celebrity chefs

Now the industry has well and truly cleaned up its act.

So who better to launch the British Egg Week than "Salmonella Edwina" herself. She did just that in a room in the Commons.

Along with celebrity chefs (is there any other sort?) including Delia Smith and Gordon Ramsay, she also contributed her own omelette recipe to a booklet to accompany the launch.

Her contribution was a recipe for a Spanish omelette, although she was quick to add: "I must point out that I used only British eggs."

It's a bit late to watch what you say now Edwina.

Commons Confidential
24 Jul 04 |  UK Politics
Commons Confidential June 2004
30 Jun 04 |  UK Politics
Commons Confidential: May 2004
02 Nov 04 |  UK Politics
Commons Confidential: April 2004
02 Nov 04 |  UK Politics
Commons Confidential: March 2004
02 Nov 04 |  UK Politics


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