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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 November, 2004, 08:57 GMT
Commons Confidential: April 2004

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Daily despatches from the House of Commons
| 1230 GMT 29 April|
A Zimbabwe journalist who faces government harassment in his own country has become the first to win a new Parliamentary award named after the Speaker who first allowed the press into the Commons.

The Speaker Abbot award was presented to Dumisani Muleya by current Speaker Michael Martin in a reception in his quarters in the Palace of Westminster.

The award was to mark the journalist's courage in exposing election discrepancies and business corruption in Zimbabwe.

Mr Muleya predicted he would now face more harassment when he returned home and the award would be branded British propaganda.

His treatment will be carefully monitored by his new friends in Westminster.

1010 GMT 28 April

When George Galloway's anti-war Respect party decided to launch itself for the local London and European elections in June, it probably did not expect the event to be taken quite so literally.

But today, organisers are sitting in their Edgware Road offices up to their ankles in water after the overnight thunder storms sent a deluge through the roof.

Does somebody in Downing Street have a direct line to the almighty after all?

1300 GMT 27 April

So it's official - Downing Street is to televise the morning lobby briefings between the prime minister's official spokesman and political journalists.

An eager British public will, for the first time, be able to see Tony Blair's mouthpiece, Tom Kelly, cross examined, sometimes remorselessly harried, about the issues of the day - no matter how troublesome, unhelpful or controversial they may be.

Well not quite.

Normally, the briefings will be taken by a minister who presumably - if the prime minister's "open and transparent" press conferences are anything to go by - will not allow "cross examination".

And he who controls the microphone controls the questioning.

However, if the mood at a meeting of political hacks to discuss the fait accompli is anything to go by, ministers will not be allowed to get away with it.

There is a feeling that, if the prime minister really wants his dirty linen washed in public - Cheriegate leaps to mind from the past - then the hacks are up for it.

We shall see.

Oh, and by the way, the prime minister also wants to scrap the afternoon press briefings entirely.

There must be an election around the corner.

1304 GMT 26 April

It is many a long year since a Tory leader could see a headline advertising the latest leadership crisis without automatically assuming it referred to him or, indeed, her.

So Michael Howard must be in seventh heaven when he picks up his newspapers each morning to see that all the current leadership speculation refers to everybody except him.

Tony Blair is getting his fair share of it and even Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy just cannot shake off rumours about his own future - despite a live phone call to David Frost's TV programme on Sunday.

Luckily for Mr Kennedy - particularly when compared to Tony Blair - few can see an obvious alternative leader.

Senior frontbencher Menzies Campbell may be good, and may even regret his decision not to go for it last time around, but most believe he is simply too old.

And former contender Simon Hughes has abandoned his leadership ambitions to focus on becoming London mayor instead. Or has he?

In what some Lib Dems saw as a particularly "unhelpful" interview, he told the Independent newspaper, when asked about the leadership: "My view is I take one step at a time.

"The next job coming up is the mayor. I haven't thought beyond 11 June. If I win, that's the next part of my life sorted, I would serve the term."

As if Mr Kennedy needed any extra encouragement to throw himself into the campaign to defeat Ken Livingstone.

1200 GMT 5 April

As the old saying goes - in the Commons, your opponents sit opposite you but your enemies sit behind you.

And it is certainly true that it is a leader's own backbench MPs who ultimately do them in.

But does Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy really have it worse than Tony Blair or Michael Howard?

Speaking in a recent interview Mr Kennedy revealed that he does not enjoy his weekly question time clash with Tony Blair.

Not simply because Labour and Tory MPs unite to heckle, jeer and attack him - but, partly, because his own backbenchers sometimes join in.

"I bring the whole House together against me, even on some occasions some Liberal Democrats as well judging by some of the reactions that I catch in people's faces, if they are not very pleased with what I am saying," he said.

He revealed his discomfort to the prime minister during a chat shortly after he got the job.

"I said, whereas the Conservatives and Labour people will go full throttle behind their leader come what may, most of the time Liberal Democrats rather sit in judgement and then have a little discussion - 'how do you think Charles did this week?'," he said.

Easter break

That sort of comment reflects much of the talk that rumours about his drinking habits and leadership performance comes from his own side.

It is a piece of gossip that has dogged him since virtually the day he became Liberal Democrat leader, presumably from those in his party who think they are spoilt for choice when it comes to selecting a popular leader.

So, like just about everyone else in the Commons, Mr Kennedy will no doubt enjoy the longer-than-usual Easter break as a way of recharging his batteries.

The break was extended this year, by the way, to allow builders to erect a security screen between the public gallery and the floor of the Commons chamber.

It is also likely that when MPs do eventually return, there will be a number of other discreet security measures put in place to avert a terrorist attack on the building.

There have been any number of suggestion floated - and instantly dismissed - including a 15 foot, razor-wire-topped wall around the entire building and a barrier across the Thames.

Speculation that a barrage balloon may be permanently stationed over Big Ben, however, is probably well wide of the mark.

You read it here first.

1330 GMT 1 April

It was to be the grudge match to end all grudge matches.

A pub quiz in the House of Commons press gallery put some of the finest journalistic brains on Fleet Street up against each other in a fight to avert humiliation.

Ringers were brought in, bets were placed and flamboyant claims were made. Honour was at stake.

But the hacks forgot one thing - the press gallery also includes the fine body of men and women of Hansard who quietly, but with devastating effectiveness, cruised to victory.

Next year there are plans for a phone a friend option - whether the organisers like it or not.

Commons Confidential: March 2004
02 Nov 04 |  Politics


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