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

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Daily despatches from the House of Commons
| 1430 GMT 31March|
So what's so new about an MP getting on his high horse?

This time, at least, it was an eye catching stunt by shadow Agriculture Secretary James Gray to draw attention to the issue of the export of live horses.

The MP, President of the Association of British Riding Schools, rode into Parliament on retired champion police horse, Pascal, a 23 year old bay mare on loan from the International League for the Protection of Horses .

In doing so, he became the first MP to ride a horse into Parliament since the beginning of the last century. He also beat the traffic and, probably public transport.

The aim of the event was to publicise the following Westminster debate on the export of live horses, which he fears the government may be about to resume after the adoption of European laws which would make it possible.

"I hope this calls attention to the purpose of the debate, which is to retain the current ban on the export of live horses to Europe for slaughter and human consumption," he said.

"The practice has been banned for the last 70 years with good reason. I am certain that most people hate the idea of exporting our horses to be made into sausages and salami on the continent."

After all, one man's meat is another man's mount.

1230 GMT 30 March

It is always the left-field (as opposed to left-wing) questions that catch prime ministers on the hop.

So thank heavens for punters like the chap who rang in to a Sheffield radio show to ask Tony Blair what his favourite sandwich was.

Sounds simple doesn't it. But far from it, it is a hugely loaded political question.

Should he go for the working class bacon butty, the middle England prawn sandwich or the Islingtonesque mozzarella and avocado in lightly toasted ciabatta.

Tony hesitated. Then proved just why he is the ultimate politician by going straight for the classless, albeit arguably slightly too American, BLT.

Ah yes, I hear his critics mutter, what he means by that is Parma ham, organic lettuce and sun dried tomatoes.

Still, it's a million times better than John Major's professed liking for peas, which dogged him throughout his premiership.

1230 GMT 29 March

So Iain Duncan Smith has been cleared of any wrongdoing over the employment of his wife Betsy.

And that has raised the inevitable question in the bars and tea rooms of Westminster: "If the allegations had never been made, would he still be Tory leader?"

Mr Duncan Smith was never under any doubt what lay behind the claims. It was, in his view, all part of the plot to fatally undermine his leadership.

And it will be tempting for his supporters to claim that, had he been cleared immediately, there would have been no subsequent challenge to him.

But the truth is that his detractors were simply determined to get him.

For example, it was claimed before last summer's local elections that, if the Tories did well, Mr Duncan Smith's leadership would be secure. That turned out not to be true either.

The brutal truth is that those who were determined to get a new leader were always looking for suitable events to spark a challenge.

The so-called Betsygate claims certainly did not help IDS - apart from anything else, they lifted the lid on the near civil war inside Tory central office.

And, of course, no one can say for sure whether he would still be there had the allegations never been made.

But it is fair to say that the campaign to oust him was already well developed and, irrespective of this affair, had probably gone beyond the point of no return.

1320 GMT 26 March

I know Chancellor Gordon Brown has his mind on higher things, but that is no excuse.

Apparently he very nearly voted against his own budget the other day.

After a long day debating the fine print of Mr Brown's "clever" pre-election package, MPs then had to take part in a series of votes.

As they duly lined up to march through the voting lobbies on each item, the Chancellor was spotted looking decidedly puzzled over which door he should go through.

If in doubt Gordon, just follow Tony! Or not.

1300 GMT 25 March

If Tony Blair's new media chief, Howell James, wanted an idea of just how difficult his new job might be, he could have done worse than attend the latest meeting of the Commons public administration committee.

Had he done so, he would have heard Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre admitting that the departure of Alastair Campbell from No 10 had "drained a lot of the poison from Downing Street".

But he would also have heard himself described by Mr Dacre as yet another professional spin doctor and a "Tony crony", because of his "very close" friendship with disgraced former minister Peter Mandelson.

He would also have witnessed the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, Sir Christopher Meyer, warning him he was probably not the solution to the problem of alleged spin in Downing Street.

The two men were giving evidence to the committee examining the government's communications machine and the report from the Phillis Review which recommended the appointment of a powerful new civil servant to oversee all government communications.

As the committee was meeting it was officially confirmed that Mr James, a former political secretary to then Tory prime minister John Major, had got the job, which carries the rank of permanent secretary in the civil service.

The appointment has already caused some controversy, with opponents claiming he is not the sort of senior civil service figure envisaged by Phillis.

Downing Street has flatly rejected that, but in robust and occasionally sharp exchanges, Mr Dacre defended a story in his newspaper branding Mr James another Tony crony and friend of former spin doctor Peter Mandelson.

"Here is a man who is deeply involved with friendships in No 10.

"It was recommended that somebody with a civil service background come in, and you tell me it's hunky-dory for a professional spin doctor to do it."

Later, Sir Christopher - who served as John Major's press secretary in the early 1990s - said he did not believe the new-look media operation in Downing Street would get to the heart of the problem.

"If you have this new permanent secretary position and also continue to have somebody in Downing Street who is briefing on politics and somebody who is briefing on policy, I find it very difficult to see how this new permanent secretary is going to elbow in and make any difference," he said.

And in written evidence to the committee he said he feared there would be "a permanent turf war between the new permanent secretary and Whitehall departments, including No 10, who will consider that they know better than he or she".

And, asked if he would have relished the job, he swiftly answered: "no."

So, even before he has started his new job, Mr James has been given the clearest possible indication of some of the problems he is likely to face.

And on his shoulders now lies the task of addressing the breakdown in trust between government, media and voters highlighted by the Phillis review.


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