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Last Updated: Monday, 28 February 2005, 12:55 GMT
Commons Confidential: Feb 2005

By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

Daily despatches from the House of Commons
1300 GMT 28 February

Tony Blair recently compared his relationship with the electorate to that of a marriage.

There had, he claimed, been some harsh words and crockery had even been thrown at him.

Now we know what he intends to do about it.

Apparently the new Domestic Violence Act has led to advice from the Crown Prosecution Service that crockery-throwing will become an arrestable offence.

As one cynical old Labour warhorse put it: "Tony should be careful - at this rate he will be heading for divorce".

1300 GMT 24 February

If opposition party leaders think Tony Blair has an authoritarian streak, they should consider the behaviour of some local councils.

Cambridge's Labour MP Anne Campbell has revealed a chilling tale of how her local Big Brother was keeping an eye on her through, of all things, her recycling bins.

She answered a knock on her door on one occasion to be faced by a council official demanding to know why she was putting so little into her green bin.

She told her it was because most of the waste that would normally have gone into it was thrown onto her compost heap instead.

Apparently the official was less than satisfied with this answer and demanded to see the compost heap in question.

Mrs Campbell refused, on the grounds she was on her way out, the heap was at the bottom of the garden and she had not got the time.

Even that appeared not to persuade the official that the MP was not engaged in the capital offence of failing to fill up a green bin - but she left.

Mrs Campbell is only surprised the officer didn't return later with a search warrant - or a SWAT team.

1530 GMT 23 February

Believe it or not, Home Secretary Charles Clarke does a nice line in self deprecation.

Witness his performance during the debate on his controversial anti-terror laws.

He faced numerous interventions from backbenchers from all sides and eventually declared that he intended to deliver "big chunks" of his opening speech and then answer a number of his questioners.

"And too many people have called me a big chunk in the past," he added.

Chunky Charles has a ring to it don't you think?

1530 GMT 22 February

Labour party chairman, Glaswegian Ian McCartney, is a bit of a romantic - particularly on Valentine's Day.

So he was disappointed that the Labour party spring conference in Gateshead kept him away from his wife and home this February 14.

Still, he did dispatch a suitable e-mail to his beloved Ann. But, horror of horrors, it disappeared into the e-mail ether, sparking fears of who might have received it by mistake.

However, a friend tells me mischievously that Mr McCartney was not overly concerned about what the unsuspecting recipient of his billet-doux might think.

Apparently he wrote his message in Glaswegian.

I have no idea what that means.

1330 GMT 21 February

Journalists and politicians have been saddened by the death at 77 of the "father of the press gallery", broadcaster Gordon Campbell.

Gordon entered the press gallery in 1952, originally for the Scottish Daily Express, and was universally liked and respected for his professionalism and extraordinary commitment to his job.

Letters from both Prime Minister Tony Blair and Commons Speaker Michael Martin were read at his funeral at Guildford Crematorium last Friday.

Gordon will be remembered for many, many things - notably his ready wit and sheer grit - and there are scores of anecdotes of his 53 years covering politics.

But, for some at least, he will be particularly remembered as the man who in the 1960s persuaded the then chairman of the Commons catering committee, Bob Maxwell, to open a proper bar specifically for the press.

His presence in that bar will be much missed.

1130 GMT 10 February

Unfeasibly larger than life characters, ludicrous plot lines and more drama than an Elton John tantrum. Politics has got it all.

So why on earth do party leaders battle to out do each other in their attempts to appear in Britain's great soap operas.

It is tempting to believe that Tony Blair and now Michael Howard's trips to the set of Coronation Street and Charles Kennedy's turn on East Enders were designed to give them the nearest thing to a taste of real life they ever get.

After all, when was the last time the prime minister stood in a pub pretending to enjoy a pint of beer and listening to words of wisdom from people likely to call him "chuck", let alone "mate".

Truth is, real life is horribly unpredictable. Tony Blair discovered that during the last election campaign when he was ambushed by voter Sharron Storer. And Robert Kilroy Silk got a foul taste of it when a protester chucked a bucket of slurry over him.

The set of a soap opera, however, is what politicians appear to love best.

Free Deidre

It looks like real life and is such a part of the nation's fabric that large numbers of viewers have difficulty telling it apart from real life (that is why the old Crossroads motel used to get genuine bookings)

And when the antics of the soap's characters can win front page headlines, why not treat it as real.

Tony Blair did just that when he joined the 1998 campaign to release Deidre Rachid from prison, for example.

Yet, unlike real life, this is entirely controlled, scripted, rehearsed and safe.

The greatest surprise is likely to be the (possibly) unscripted lipstick-thick kiss planted on the politician's blushing cheek.

Bizarrely, the aim of the exercise is to show that our leaders and would-be leaders are real people who enjoy the same things the rest of us do and are quite happy in the company of real people, or at least actors playing real people.

And it is the surest possible sign that the election campaign is already under way. And that is about as real as it gets.

1130 GMT 9 February

Another day, another grudge match.

This time it was the annual press gallery pub quiz.

Teams of journos and others spent months swatting up on their general knowledge in order to stuff their colleagues and show who is the cleverest hack in the pack. Mastermind this wasn't.

Last year's winners, from the Times, failed to hold onto their crown and were beaten by a team of Sunday journalists, with London's Evening Standard coming second and Tribune third.

It was a hard fought contest - with the added attraction of a supper of lasagne and chips for the carbohydrately (!) challenged - and just 2.5 points between the top three.

Needless to say, in the traditional spirit of comradeliness there have already been loud shouts of "ref" from those lower down the board who claimed they should have done better.

1530 GMT 8 February

Shrove Tuesday has seen the annual pancake race between MPs and Peers, joined for the first time by a team of political journalists.

Perhaps that last fact explains the extraordinary rules for the contest which state:

"Frying pans must not be used as weapons or as a means of making unseemly gestures, whatever the depth of provocation or the nature of the party of the person at the root of the provocation.

"Any surplus eggs, flour or batter remaining from the earlier making of the pancakes must not be propelled in the direction of other participants or spectators".

So what is the fun in that then.

The Lords' team won, by the way.

1230 GMT 7 February

There's trouble at t' mill - or the Palace of Westminster at least.

MPs and Peers are being invited to join a campaign by trades unions demanding a living wage for cleaners in the Palace who currently receive the minimum wage of 4.85 an hour.

One minister at least might turn up - solicitor general Harriet Harman.

Her husband Jack Dromey is deputy general secretary of the T&G and is leading the campaign.

1000 GMT 3 February

Plans to ban smoking throughout the palace of Westminster (see below) was always going to spark one of the fiercer debates in parliament.

One of the more robust defenders of the proposal is Lib Dem MP Nigel Jones who has suffered two heart attacks after bouts of breathing difficulties in 1992.

He has delivered a stinging attack on the thoughtless "puffers" who cause so much distress to others, and suggested any MP who flouts the ban should be suspended from the House.

Repeat offenders should be banned from the Commons for good, he demands.

"If MPs must have something to play with, I'm sure Mothercare would sponsor them with dummies".

Make up your own jokes about dummies and dummies.

1530 GMT 2 February

Casual observers of question time may not have been particularly surprised when the prime minister agreed to meet Tory leader Michael Howard to discuss the government's much-criticised proposals on the detention of terror suspects.

But this will be a near-historic occasion because the two men have not met in any formal capacity since Mr Howard became leader.

It has been a constant source of mild amusement/irritation in Tory circles that Mr Blair has not once invited the Tory leader into Downing Street for a chat, even on privy council terms.

They do not have to get on with each other - although they had a perfectly good relationship when they faced each other over the despatch box as their parties' home affairs spokesmen in the 1990s.

But it is customary for the party leaders to meet from time to time to discuss matters of state.

But no. Mr Howard has still to meet the prime minister in their current roles.

Oh to be a fly on the wall at the forthcoming meeting.

1300 GMT 1 February

Trouble appears to be brewing as the Commons authorities attempt to kill off the old smoke filled rooms of Westminster.

The House of Commons Commission has ruled that smoking will be banned from all but a few very limited areas in the Palace of Westminster, extending the ban which already exists in the Lords.

According to a memo circulated to staff, the ban will come into effect on 4 April.

And already the backlash has begun with Tory MP Laurence Robertson declaring: "It's getting like a Communist-run nursery. The bars will certainly lose my business".

Bar staff, on the other hand, may well be delighted - with the ban on smoking, that is.

Commons Confidential: Jan 2005
11 Nov 06 |  UK Politics
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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