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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 November 2005, 10:33 GMT
Commons Confidential: November 2005

By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

Despatches from the House of Commons

A star is born. Annie's bar in the Commons is witnessing the emergence of a man virtually everybody believes could have a second, lucrative career as a professional pool player.

Dewsbury's new MP Shahid Malik has entered himself in the bar's annual, and hotly contested pool tournament and has so far swatted away all challengers with almost indecent ease.

The champion for two years in a row, officer of the house Peter Brooksbank - once himself seen as near unbeatable - was despatched two frames to nil and unofficial bookies have stopped taking money on Shahid to win.

Brooksbank deserved everything he got - well he did knock me out of the contest in the second round by two frames to nothing. But Shahid is something else.

I played a couple of friendly frames against him and, on the first, didn't even get to play a ball after he cleared up on the break. The second was, let's just say, decisive.


Greenpeace protesters can be thanked for giving the world a new double act to rival Eric and Ernie - what about Tony and Digby.

Sir Digby Jones and Tony Blair
A new double act of Jones and Blair
When the rooftop protest at the prime minister's apparently pro-nuclear energy speech forced a shift of venue, it brought out the stand-up talents of both the prime minister and the head of the CBI.

Sir Digby Jones had teased the prime minister, saying he had already done two terms as head of the CBI and had decided not to do a third because he wanted to go out at the top of his game.

Wry smiles from Tony Blair as he revealed this exchange, and guffaws from Sir Digby who continued rocking with glee at a little prime ministerial joke at his expense about his ability to rant at a plane full of colleagues about the benefits of capitalism during a flight back from India - possibly all the way back from India.

The PM was now in his stride, apparently enjoying the relaxed, clubby atmosphere of the crowded, no-seats venue.

Even a "helpful" question from one delegate, asking him if he had thought of following Winston Churchill's example by crossing the floor of the House and joining the Tories, didn't faze him.

The more paranoid of Labour backbenchers may think their leader gave something less than the instant "only when hell freezes over" answer they require.

But Mr Blair won over his business audience - once seen as the Tory party at work - with a gentle jibe at the uselessness of the opposition.

There was even a little pop at Gordon Brown when a mobile phone rang just at the moment the prime minister was talking about not being able to afford something or other.

"That will be Gordon on the phone," he joked.

Precisely what the premiers of Estonia and the Czech Republic, who were alongside the prime minister, made of all this can only be guessed at.


MPs (well, some of them) are up in arms at the decision to remove a London-brewed real ale from their bar, Strangers, and replace it with a lager from the Philippines.

Labour's Martin Linton has even tabled a question to Commons leader Geoff Hoon about the matter and the fact no one appears to have been consulted about it.

One bright spark came up with the idea that, unless they get their local brew restored, MPs should boycott the bar.

Oh yes - and Chancellor Gordon Brown is about to abolish income tax as well.


As every true Brit knows, the only thing you need to understand about the UK is the weather.

And ministerial careers can be built and destroyed over this single issue - after all, which other country would appoint a minister for the weather as Dennis Howell was during the1976 drought.

So, when Trade Secretary Alan Johnson became embroiled in the row over the security of energy supplies during the threatened bleak winter, he knew a lot rode on it.

But what was his energy minister, Malcolm Wicks thinking when he made a statement in the Commons?

After being described by the opposition's John Hemming as the Secretary of State, Mr Wicks replied: "I should point out that I am not the secretary of state."

So far so good, but following calls of "yet" from Tory MPs, Mr Wicks smiled and added: "Let us wait until the end of the winter."


As Terry Rooney, the chairman of a Commons committee almost said: "Before I was so rudely interrupted..."

John Hutton
Hutton was surprised

Mr Rooney was re-convening his committee's investigation into the department of work and pensions which, exactly three weeks ago to the day, was halted after its principal witness, David Blunkett, failed to turn up.

Mr Blunkett was, of course, otherwise engaged in Downing Street, losing his job for the second time in a year.

So today's hearing was not quite the one the committee had planned, as Mr Rooney pointed out.

Instead of David Blunkett, the MPs had the new Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton in front of them.

Mr Hutton - a solid, Blairite, safe pair of hands who has quietly worked his way up to a top Cabinet job - expressed his own feelings about his job, declaring: "You have no idea how surprised I am to be here." Quite.

Everyone was prepared to accept his surprise, particularly as it is widely believed the prime minister had first offered the job to the current International Development minister, Hilary Benn

But after his self-deprecating opening remarks, the new secretary of state went on to show that, despite this image, he was going to be no pushover.

To the committee's clear disappointment he told them there was absolutely no way he would get into the details about the forthcoming green paper on welfare - exactly the area the MPs would have pressed his predecessor on.

Mr Hutton explained he had only just taken the job and, in effect, needed to get his feet firmly under the table before deciding where to go with the proposals.

Whether this had anything to do with the suggestion that the prime minister and Mr Blunkett had disagreed over the plans, with Mr Blair demanding more radicalism, remains an open question.


You prefer to fly British Airways, shop at Sainsbury's, use Crown paint and Orange mobile phones - so you are a Tory.

If, on the other hand, you favour Timberland footwear, Apple computers, PG Tips and Rolex watches then you are a Labour supporter.

Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, go for Vauxhall cars, Galaxy chocolate, Vodafone and Calpol.

Or at least, that is what ad agency Young and Rubicam discovered when asking 500 people to list their favourites amongst 300 UK brands.

All very interesting and it could provide hours of innocent fun when standing behind people in the supermarket queue.

But what's all this about Labour supporters and Rolex watches.


If one person knows where the European Commission's bodies are buried, then it's probably sacked whistleblower Marta Andreasen.

Three years ago, the Spanish official claimed the EU's budget was open to fraud and abuse and was suspended for her trouble by her then boss, UK Commissioner Neil Kinnock, for failing to follow the right procedures.

Now, as Britain attempts to sort out the budget before the close of its presidency at the end of December - a task Mrs Andreasen believes is doomed to failure, by the way - there is mounting concern she is set to make even more revelations.

The opening stages of her case against her dismissal before the European Court of First Instance has been completed and she is now waiting for a date for a full, public hearing.

The good news for the prime minister, who has enough on his plate attempting to head off claims his presidency has been a failure, is that the wheels of justice move exceedingly slowly in Brussels.

The case is unlikely to be heard before March of next year.

But there is also dismay in certain EC circles that this case has not been settled out of court before the dirty washing is hung out.

Mrs Andreasen believes she knows part of the answer to that one.

"They (the Commission) are not worried about it. The whole culture is that the public aren't really interested. There will be bad publicity but people will forget about it very quickly," she said.


This is has not happened in recent memory - I'm tempted to say living memory.

But question time in the Commons was ended 10 minutes early - leading to a suspension of the sitting - after MPs ran out of questions to put to Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett and her ministers.

House of Commons benches
Environment questions in Commons
There were just 20 questions tabled for answer, and normally only perhaps a half would have been called in the time allowed. But the full list was despatched in short order.

Speaker Michael Martin put this down to "the efficiency of the answers and replies".

Others, however, pointed out that several MPs with questions listed were not in the chamber.

And they tell us the Commons is as important, vibrant and central to political life as ever.

1230 GMT

The famous Annie's bar in the Commons is, shall we say, "compact".

With the bar itself and a pool table, there is hardly enough room left to swing a cat, let alone a punch.

So regulars held their breath when they were told Labour MPs Jim Dowd and Bob Marshall-Andrews were both heading for the venue.

These are the two MPs who "tussled" during a heated conversation over the government's anti-terror laws and have yet to patch up their differences.

Was there about to be a rumble in the confines of Annie's where, rules state, everything is off the record and not to be reported at any price?

So, as a stickler for rules, I cannot report what happened when they met.

But I know a man who can, and he tells me they simply ignored each other - and that's not easy in that little room either.


There is plenty of talk about the future of Labour's Chief Whip, Hilary "Strongarm" Armstrong, particularly in the wake of the government's first ever defeat last week and the fact the prime minister still hasn't carried out his mini re-shuffle caused by the resignation of David Blunkett.

Hilary Armstrong
Armstrong probably has job security
But Ms Armstrong can probably rest easy. Even if the prime minister had wanted to sack her - and some have urged him to do that for some time - he cannot do it now.

Firstly, she did not get her sums wrong over the terror rebellion but told the prime minister (more than once I am reassured) that he was going to lose it.

He was unmoved, insisting he would not climb down and telling his whip to get the vote out.

To ensure she could not be blamed for the inevitable defeat, she called back Gordon Brown and Jack Straw from abroad and made sure every available loyal backbencher was in the Commons on the night.

But, what makes her even more secure for the time being is the fact that absolutely nobody else wants the job.

And why would they when they believe Tony Blair is on the way out and it is Gordon Brown they need to get alongside?

The PM's critics, needless to say, see this as another example of why Tony Blair can no longer get his way...


Former diplomat Sir Christopher Meyer may have infuriated his former masters with his memoirs - apparently Tony Blair was star struck by George Bush and Jack Straw was more to be liked than admired, for example.

But the consequences of his revelations - in a book actually given the green light by both the cabinet and foreign offices - may be far reaching.

Not least, perhaps, for former Downing Street spin chief Alastair Campbell whose own diaries of life inside the Blair bunker are eagerly awaited.

Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell is less than impressed by the number of ex-state employees of one sort or another rushing into print.

He has, after all, set himself the task of trying to rebuild trust in government and Whitehall.

So he is continuing to contemplate ways of "de-incentivising" the activity of book publishing and the usually far more lucrative serialisations.

And by far the best way of doing this is to make sure the authors don't make any money from their efforts (although Sir Christopher has avoided that one by donating cash from his serialisations to charity).

One possibility would be to ensure any such memoirs, diaries or other recollections are covered by crown copyright so any cash would, presumably, go straight into the Treasury.

And if that thought isn't enough to put anyone off then nothing is.


Not long after Tony Blair's Commons defeat the MPs' bar, Strangers, was packed to bursting point with Parliamentarians cheering, booing and generally having what looked like a rollicking good time.

Celtic/Rangers match
The game that really gripped MPs
Party differences appeared to have been forgotten - and even some MPs who had allegedly been involved a bit of a fracas the night before were in good humour.

It was all very confusing and, it must be said, somehow appeared almost insensitive bearing in mind the horror the prime minister had just suffered.

Until, that is, a glance at the two TV monitors revealed the source of the fun - the Celtic-Rangers match.

Good to see that some things, after all, are more important than politics.


New MP for Burnley, Kitty Usher, shows an admirable tendency not to spin her CV.

Kitty Ussher
Usher has confessed to a dark secret

Asked what she first wanted to be when she grew up, rather than dreaming up something suitably impressive - prime minister, diplomat or UN secretary general for example - she made a difficult confession.

The young Kitty wanted nothing more than to be a traffic warden. And not a lot of people would admit to that.

Ten out of ten for candour. Sounds like a job in the whips office is the perfect career move.


Is this the latest sign that Tony Blair's authority is waning?

The long-defunct Tribune Group of Labour MPs has reformed in the Commons under the guiding hand of Eltham's Clive Efford.

It will aim to encourage debate about the future direction of Labour policy and it is probably safe to assume it will not be the direction Tony Blair favours.

The left-wing group - which was once the most lively and challenging of Labour's political associations - folded in the mid-1990s amid claims the leadership had "infiltrated" it and turned it into a New Labour body.

Invitations to join the newly reformed group have been extended to backbench Labour MPs only.


Much amusement in Tory circles over former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's memoirs having a pop at Margaret Thatcher who clearly drove him to the brink of despair on many occasions during their time in office.

Lady Thatcher and Helmut Kohl
No meeting of minds here
Mr Kohl relates how the then British prime minister gave him many headaches - that's what happens when you are handbagged, Helmut - but was particularly difficult after the collapse of Communism.

He says Lady Thatcher played an "unfriendly, indeed a dangerous role" in opposing German reunification.

At one dinner, he claims she "started heavily laying into me - I remained calm - with the thought that even Margaret Thatcher cannot prevent the German people from following their destiny.

"Incensed with rage, Thatcher stamped her feet and screamed: 'That's how you see it, how you see it'."

On another occasion she claimed to veto reunification declaring: "We've beaten the Germans twice and now they are back". So much for not mentioning the war.

In any case, Lady Thatcher's former press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham tells me that, while he was not at the particular meeting; "It rings fairly true".

Although, he says, she was far more likely to have banged the table than stamp her feet.

And he said the two never really got on. "The chemistry was not there".

"She certainly did not want to see a dominant Germany, and said we had seen enough of that in the past.

"Anyway, on one occasion he fed her stuffed pigs bellies when he entertained her - she felt that was excessively German!".


It's Halloween, and the hunt is on for Britain's scariest celebrity.

Charles Clarke
A scary home secretary
Narrowing it down to just a few would appear the biggest problem - so thanks are due to the Beard Liberation Front.

This dedicated group has scoured the celebrity mags and TV shows and come up with a shortlist of six men - that's the first relief then - worthy of the dubious honour of being Britain's scariest beard.

And this is one area where politicians come out top with both David Blunkett (oh dear) and Charles Clarke in the list which also includes Noel Edmonds, Bill Oddie, Dave Lee Travis and Anthony Worrall Thompson.

And the winner is - the Home Secretary Charles Clarke.

Presenting the award, BLF organiser Keith Flett declared: In the right circumstances Charles Clarke's beard can look distinguished. But would you want it looming up at you on a dark and windy night?"

A scary home secretary, now there's a thought.

Commons Confidential: October 2005
31 Oct 05 |  UK Politics

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