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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 January 2005, 11:58 GMT
Commons Confidential: Jan 2005

By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

Daily despatches from the House of Commons

|1200 GMT 26 January|

Thirsty hacks in the Commons have been spared the long walk up an entire flight of 20 steps to the press bar when in search of much-needed refreshment.

Thanks to a technical malfunction of the porter supply - that is, a leak - large quantities of Guinness have been pouring through the ceiling into journalists offices directly below.

Queues of excited journalists armed with buckets have been forming along the corridor.

Alright, not really. But the smell which has permeated the nooks and crannies of the press gallery is something else.

1000 GMT 25 January

Good news for music fans - the tune "If You Don't Know Me By Now" by Simply Red's Mick Hucknall will NOT be Labour's general election theme.

Party officials have reassured me they have no intention of using that particular song during the campaign.

I should have known, the word Red was removed from the New Labour vocabulary years ago.

1000 GMT 20 January

New Labour is still searching for a suitable anthem to launch its 2005 election campaign to rival the old 1997 favourite "Things Can Only Get Better".

Other pop tunes that have been tried out have slipped instantly into oblivion - so much so that even some Labour insiders can't remember what they were.

But I fear the latest suggestion is tempting fate.

Hacks turning up to the first press conference in the party's new media centre - just a few feet away from Tory HQ - were "treated" to one of Simply Red singer Mick Hucknall's efforts, "If You Don't Know Me By Now".

One uncharitable member of the press corps suggested it begged the obvious retort: "That's the problem".

1530 GMT 19 January

A bit of a warning for Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy - beware the Frost programme.

With the general election looming, Britain's political leaders have been making themselves available for cross examination by Sir David Frost on his Sunday morning BBC show.

Tony Blair and Michael Howard have done it and this Sunday it's Mr Kennedy's turn.

But it has been pointed out that the weekend the prime minister did it coincided with the publication of extracts of the new book detailing the rift between Mr Blair and the chancellor.

When Mr Howard turned up it was to face questions about that weekend's defection of Tory MP Robert Jackson to Labour.

It is beginning to look like the TV equivalent of the curse of Hello magazine.

Too late to pull out now though Charles. Just keep you fingers crossed.

1530 GMT 18 January

Former foreign secretary Robin Cook was on particularly good form when he addressed a lunch for political journalists in the Commons.

He warned Tony Blair that the great victor at the next general election may be the "abstention party" thanks to disillusioned voters' belief there was no longer a serious difference between Labour and the Tories.

And he urged a "shift in gear" away from the "unremittingly New Labour" manifesto promised by the prime minister.

He repeated his opposition to the war on Iraq and the "disastrous" occupation and warned President Bush and Tony Blair they were in danger of turning a rogue state into a failed state.

He could not understand why the two leaders believed the creation of a form of democracy in the country would defeat the insurgents, he declared.

And he spelt out how he believed Britain and the US should look for a means of withdrawing troops from the country after the January election.

And on that subject he revealed how a piece he had written for a national newspaper had been misinterpreted by colleagues.

The headline attached to the article read: "Hold the election then get out", says Cook.

Apparently some Labour MPs believed he was being somewhat unfair to the prime minister.

Mr Cook, of course, would never suggest such a thing ..... other than to say that once the UK election was over the party might be able to indulge in the luxury of a leadership election.

1030 GMT 17 January

Things really aren't looking too good for Blackpool.

Even as the resort plans a facelift to turn itself into the British equivalent of Las Vegas, its attraction as a political conference venue has taken a major knock.

Labour is said to have abandoned it in favour of Manchester for its big 2006 autumn conference - but it may be worse than that.

Both the Liberal Democrats and the Tories are in the town for their conferences this year which means, if they follow the buggins' turn tradition, they will also be going somewhere else in 2006.

And there has long been pressure from some quarters inside both those parties to give up on the resort and never go back.

Jonathan Tongue, Politics Professor at Salford University claimed there was a bit of class snobbery going on here, at least as far as Labour was concerned.

"I think there is a certain category within the party who prefer the increasing urban sophistication of Manchester rather than the gaudy delights of Blackpool Illuminations on a wet October week".

Of course. How could anyone not be attracted to Blackpool's gaudy delights on a wet October week?

1230 GMT 13 January

Michael Howard must feel there is some sort of jinx afflicting the Tory party.

Now, even teeny poppers Busted appear to have fallen victim to the Tory kiss of death.

Back in the autumn the group confessed they were Tory supporters - now they appear to be splitting (or taking time out to pursue individual projects as the PR guff usually has it).

Will pop stars never learn, even after the Cool Britannia farce that did so much to boost the street cred of bands like Oasis?

1130 GMT 12 January

The technology revolution may have transformed the way Whitehall works over the past eight years - but it also appears to have had an otherwise entirely unforeseen effect.

Latest figures from the Department of Trade and Industry offer a fascinating insight into the temptations offered by such highly portable bits of kit like mobile phones, digital cameras, laptop computers and PDAs.

In 1997, the department lost or had stolen just a single piece of equipment - a telephone answering machine.

By 2001, mobile phones and computers had taken over and 7 of each went missing along with one modem, one big screen flat computer and one digital camera.

The following year saw a massive increase in the number of bits of kit growing legs to 80, and it has remained fairly stable ever since.

Last year, for example, 26 mobile phones and 20 laptops disappeared. But so did a dozen USB devices, and a selection of mice, keyboards, portable TVs, PDAs and so on.

Clearly, unless it's nailed down it's going to go walkabout. Perhaps the Mandarins of Whitehall should start scouring ebay for anything that looks familiar.

1200 GMT 11 January

Ruth Kelly's spectacular promotion to the Cabinet following David Blunkett's resignation appears to have done little for her celebrity status.

When local TV company Granada Reports went to the centre of her patch in Bolton town centre and asked passers by if they could recognise the person in the photograph they got some extraordinary replies.

One unhesitatingly claimed it was solo round-the-world yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur while another, less flatteringly, insisted it was popster Ronan Keating.

The closest anyone came was one punter who scratched his head and declared: "You are going to tell me it's my local MP - but I've no idea who that is."


Back to the Blair-Brown drama (see below).

Well they arrived at the meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party within 30 seconds of each other, but, like a scene from High Noon, from opposite ends of the Commons corridor.

They were both, however, smiling and the prime minister even managed a joke to the hacks circling the area.

Spotting one of Tory leader Michael Howard's parliamentary aides, Alistair Burt, chatting to the journalists, Mr Blair declared: "I hope you are not getting a briefing from Alistair".

Wrong Alistair, prime minister.

1230 GMT 10 January

First day back to work (for MPs at least) and straight into the same old political dramas - that is, the latest instalment in the Blair-Brown rift.

One of the first events of the new year for Labour backbenchers is to turn up to a meeting of the parliamentary party tonight for a double act performance by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

But will they arrive together or separately, will they listen to each other's speeches and will they be able to resist the temptation to send out coded "I-hate-you-really" messages?

I'll keep you posted.


Much puzzlement when hacks and officials travelling with Tony Blair to Jerusalem and Ariel Sharon's HQ found themselves being ushered, one by one, into a small cubicle by security men.

One Downing Street man discovered he had been waved through into the inner sanctum and, pointing to the grey concertina-style curtain declared: "But I haven't had my picture taken yet."

In fact, he had just been spared an unusually thorough and, er, probing full body search.

Commons Confidential: Dec 2004
21 Dec 04 |  UK Politics
Commons Confidential: Nov 2004
07 Dec 04 |  UK Politics
Commons Confidential: October 2004
29 Oct 04 |  UK Politics
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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