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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 March 2006, 13:41 GMT
Commons Confidential: February 2006

By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

Despatches from the House of Commons

So this is supposed to be David Cameron's Clause Four moment - when, like Tony Blair before him, he buries the party's election-losing past and moves into a brave new era.

Well, perhaps. But let's not forget we have sort of been here before.

William Hague had his "common sense" agenda with a document setting out what his Tory party was really all about.

He also called it "compassionate Conservatism" by the way. There was Iain Duncan Smith's "fair deal for everyone".

More recently, Michael Howard had his full page "I Believe" newspaper advertisements in which he set out what his Tory party was all about.

Now Mr Cameron has his "Built to Last" statement that, er, sets out what his Tory party is really all about.

His are, without doubt, significantly different from previous statements of principle and may appear designed to anger his old guard, like former party chairman Lord Norman Tebbit.

But no. The Chingford skinhead, as the Lord was once known, is not looking for a fight.

Indeed he appears to believe he has spotted the new leader's game and isn't about to play the part of the man who symbolises the past, so he is describing Mr Cameron's document as something just about everybody could sign up to - from whatever party.

Similarly, the prime minister's official spokesman spotted the trap as well and, when asked whether Tony Blair could sign up to the document, chose not to respond.

Let's hope Mr Cameron's agenda is "built to last" longer than his predecessors'.


MPs, as you know, are banned from telling lies in the Commons chamber. Honourable Members just don't do that sort of thing anyway.

But there is nothing official that stops them telling whoppers once they have left the green benches - until now.

Apparently sleaze buster Sir Alistair Graham wants a new code of conduct to include a requirement for them to be truthful all the time they are in office.

This is very early stages you understand, but Sir Alistair believes the public want and deserve honesty from their politicians.

Presumably election manifestos will not be covered...


It didn't take long for the shouts of "hypocrisy" to be heard after MPs voted to ban smoking in all pubs and clubs.

In typical fashion, it has been claimed, the new ban will not apply to the Commons because it is a royal palace and, therefore, exempt from such laws.

That is indeed the case. But as far as the Lords and Commons are concerned, on this occasion they have been way ahead of the law - so far.

To the great dismay of some in the two Houses, smoking has been banned in the Commons and Lords, including most bars and restaurants, for months.

There are only a limited number of exceptions such as, interestingly, the press bar and the famous watering hole Annie's, and, unsurprisingly, the MPs' smoking room.

That is out of some two dozen bars and restaurants in the two palaces.

Of course, outside Parliament the new laws will not allow even those limited exceptions.

However, before smokers in Westminster get their hopes up, it is worth pointing out that the palace authorities are on record saying that, despite their royal status, the Commons and Lords tend to fall in line with any new laws.

So there will be a move to ban smoking in the few exceptions currently allowed, probably to coincide with the expected introduction of the new laws in the summer of next year.

But for now, Westminster remains ahead of the game. The Lords' authorities stubbed out smoking in 2004 and there were great rumblings of discontent from puffing parliamentarians when the Commons followed the lead and banned smoking in April last year.

Signs were put up in places like the MPs' bar, Strangers, and all around the precincts warning staff and members that they should not indulge their habit in those areas.

And odd little bus shelter-style booths have appeared in some of the corridors offering a place for addicts to indulge.

But what really surprised many was when MPs and staff returned from their Whitsun recess in June to be greeted by new signs telling them they were not allowed to smoke outdoors - if they were in sight of the public.

Apparently the authorities didn't like the idea of tourists and others seeing unsightly little knots of people surrounded by clouds of smoke huddled in corners of the palace.

Perhaps the most interesting fact, however, is that there has been no revolution or cases of MPs deliberately flouting the rules. There is the odd grumble and the occasional, "accidental" breach of the rules.

But mostly, rather like Tuesday night's debate, there seems to be an acceptance that times have changed.

By the way, smoking was banned in the Commons chamber itself in 1693.


Lib Dem MP Lynne Featherstone found herself in a tricky situation when faced with a hysterical constituent during her regular surgery.

She explains: "I know theoretically people used to say you are meant to slap someone who is hysterical around the face and the shock is supposed to bring them back to their senses.

"However, I hardly think that a viable or acceptable solution in this day and age!" Quite.

A lesson, perhaps, for John Prescott?


UKIP founder Nigel Farage claims his faith in human nature has been restored - by an avant-garde installation artist.
Where are the Marxists now?

The politician accidentally left his briefcase in a London taxi and had given it up for lost until a friend in Liverpool rang, saying he knew where it was.

Apparently an artist who raids rubbish skips for inspiration had found it, looked inside and, finding an address book, rang the first name in it - that of Mr Farage's Liverpool friend.

It could, presumably, have ended very differently with a Tracey Emin-style installation. How about "man in a briefcase".

That's got to be a Turner prize winner.


Now there's something you don't see every day - Tony Blair singing the old socialist anthem the Red Flag.

Even better, he was singing it from the Commons despatch box surrounded by virtually his entire parliamentary party.

And he seemed to know the words - in the past he would almost certainly have feigned not to, for fear of being mistaken as a leftie.

It was all done for a celebration to mark the centenary of the Labour Party.

Sadly, not a re-run of the famous occasion in 1976 when then Tory Minister Michael Heseltine grabbed the Commons mace and held it over his head in fury at an outbreak of Red Flag singing by Welsh MPs.

This time it came at the end of Commons business with the full agreement of the powers that be and, unsurprisingly, with not a single Tory or Lib Dem MP in the chamber.


It is unusual for a party leader to table a Commons motion - but "moderniser" David Cameron has done just that.

He congratulates his shadow attorney-general, Dominic Grieve, for winning a series of political awards.

However, the very next motion printed on the order paper is from fellow Tory Greg Knight.

It welcomes a Commons inquiry which will "examine the uses currently made of motions by MPs and others...." Oops.


Ever wondered what happened to all the old 1960s and 70s Marxist revolutionaries? Former leftie, now right-wing commentator, Peter Hitchens has a clue.

Madonna's mum-in-law has key Tory role
Referring to Defence Secretary John Reid's claim that, in regard to Iraq, he adopted "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will", he pointed out it was a quote from Marxist Gramsci.

"The man is a former member of the Communist party. The New Labour Party is stuffed with allegedly ex-Marxists who have simply adopted other means".


Most agree that the Commons is lacking in glamour and personality. So what about Madonna for Westminster?

It may seem fanciful, but if the singer has political ambitions and becomes an official Brit, she'd have a head start.

Her mother in law, Shireen Ritchie, is the Tories' head of candidates, drawing up the A list of women to fight for seats at the next election.

Sadly, despite her best efforts to come over all town and country, Madge is still a yank and, thus, ineligible.


Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik is universally known in Westminster as the man with an anagram for a name.

It is something he jokes about himself so I'm sure he won't mind me passing on the latest gentle jibe at his expense.

After he first insisted Charles Kennedy should remain as party leader and then threw his support behind Mark Oaten, some Westminster wags believe they have solved the riddle of his name.

It is, according to them, an anagram for "kiss of death". Except it's not!


In the months before his untimely death last August, Labour MP Robin Cook posed for a portrait that captured his many facets.

William Hague unveiling his Common Sense manifesto
He sits with his two dogs, wearing his racing clothes with Edinburgh's Musselburgh racecourse and the Firth of Forth in the background.

By his hand is a copy of Hansard dated 17 March 2003, the day he resigned from the cabinet over the war on Iraq.

Speaker Michel Martin unveiled the portrait, by artist Fionna Carlisle, and which now hangs in MPs offices Portcullis House, with Mr Cook's wife Gaynor and sons Christopher and Peter in attendance.

Ms Carlisle said her subject had taken a great interest in the work. "He wanted his smile in the portrait to show a happy and contented man, which is how he felt."

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