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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 April 2006, 08:46 GMT 09:46 UK
Commons Confidential: March 2006

By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

Despatches from the House of Commons


There's a new game doing the rounds in Westminster - who should play foreign secretary Jack Straw in a new blockbuster (they hope) movie?

Jack Straw
Is film fame awaiting our foreign secretary?
Brit producer and director Michael Winterbottom - of 24 Hour Party People and 9 Songs fame - has a new production planned based on the events surrounding the controversial dismissal by Mr Straw of the ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray.

Mr Murray, you may recall, was removed amid claims he had been targeted for criticising UK policy towards the country which ignored its human rights abuses.

Mr Winterbottom has already pencilled Steve 'Alan Partridge' Coogan in for the role of the diplomat whose yet-to-be published book, Murder in Samarkand, forms the basis of the planned film.

Mr Straw refuses to be drawn but fellow MPs have their own suggestions and, if you ask me, the foreign secretary has nothing to be ashamed of.

So far suggestions to Mr Straw's local newspaper have included Al Pacino, from Tory Nigel Evans, who said the actor possessed the same "don't mess with me" quality that he reckons Mr Straw has recently adopted.

Labour's Gordon Prentice suggested Derek Jacobi on the grounds it would take a consummate actor to play a man of as many parts as Mr Straw.

And Labour's Greg Pope called on Bill Nighy to step forward as he "might act as a better foreign secretary than Jack".

As for Mr Murray himself, he is less flattering, suggesting the man who sacked him should be portrayed by Alan Rickman - the actor who once pulled off the formidable task of making the Sheriff of Nottingham appear more evil that ever before.

However, this may all prove pointless. Government officials are set to take legal action to stop both the book and film on the grounds it was a "betrayal of trust" to produce the book which, it was claimed, is "misleading and incorrect".

"We will actively consider our legal options if Mr Murray publishes his book," said a spokesman.

OK, but what if Al Pacino agrees to play the foreign secretary then?


We all know what it's like. You live in the same house for donkeys' years and eventually the stuffing falls out of the sofa, the mattresses sag and the kids break your favourite coffee table.

All part of the wear and tear of daily living - requiring a trip to the local furniture shop and a raid on the credit card. But £30,000 in one year?

That is what Tony and Cherie Blair spent on furnishings in 10 Downing Street in 2004-5. And it wasn't a one off.

In the previous five years they spent just short of £100,000 on furnishings - and you can get a lot of new coffee tables for that sort of money.

The figures have been obtained by Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker who intends to investigate further to discover precisely what the cash was spent on.

"I've been in Downing Street and the furniture looks perfectly alright to me. It seems the prime minister is very cavalier when it comes to spending other people's money to keep himself in comfort," he said.


The infamous rivalry between barely-dressed models Jodie Marsh and Jordan will have nothing on this.

Jodie Marsh
Willis wants Marsh banned from schools
Celebrity Big Brother contestant Ms Marsh - who was at loggerheads with Respect MP George Galloway, amongst others, on the show - has a new parliamentary hate figure in the shape of former Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis.

Ms Marsh is apparently incensed that Mr Willis has tabled a Commons question demanding she be banned from touring schools as part of an anti-bullying campaign.

"What is it with these old duffers," she declared. "I seem to be tripping over MPs who waste taxpayers' money by having a go at me in a bid for fame and fortune."

Seeking fame and fortune? Hardly. Mr Willis said he had little idea who Ms Marsh was until a school pupil tipped him off about her planned tour and he visited her website.

"It's absolutely appalling," he said. "There is no way she is the right sort of person to be going into our schools," he told me.


The Labour Party may already have money worries over the possible repayment of its secret £14million loans from wealthy businessmen - but there may be worse to come.

Some party members are kicking up at the whacking 50% increase in their subs from £24 to £36 which, they fear, is to help cover the debts.

I am told that many are already refusing to pay the increase and there are fears in party HQ that the latest affair is only going to make matters worse.

And, with membership currently less than half what it was at the 1997 election, there is little optimism within the ranks that a recruitment drive will have much effect.

Perhaps an appeal for donations might help...


This must mark the official start of a battle of the bearskins.

The Queen and Prince Phillip
Prince Phillip is a bearskin wearer
Labour's Chris Mullin tabled a Commons motion asking for the traditional hats, worn by five guards regiments and royalty, including Prince Phillip, to be banned and replaced with fake fur alternatives to spare the bear.

Now former Scots Guard soldier and bearskin wearer, Tory MP Ben Wallace has hit back, insisting the hats should continue to be made from the real thing - and warning that to scrap them would threaten the livelihoods of the Canadian Inuit (Eskimos).

Stressing the hats highlighted the regiment's "glorious military traditions" he added: "The bearskin pelts used for them are sourced from a necessary cull of Canadian bears carried out by the indigenous Inuit people every year."

And, in his amendment to Mr Mullin's motion, he adds: "Previous trials of artificial fur have failed to find an appropriate replacement and many bearskins last for many decades especially after the grooming that guardsmen are required to administer to them."


The long-running and often controversial issue of a Commons crèche has started doing the rounds again, with many women MPs once again asking why there is no such facility in the Palace of Westminster, particularly when all the parties are out to attract more women into the place.

Finding room for children
At one recent meeting, for example, Labour's Ann Cryer acidly remarked: "No room for a crèche, but if I remember correctly there is a smoking room."

There is an unhappy history attached to this issue and previous, unsuccessful attempts to provide a crèche.

The official reason for the inaction has always been the lack of a suitable site for the facility.

In the past the old rifle range where gun totin' MPs and security staff used to practice their skills was suggested and then ruled out.

It was always said the cellar, claimed to be the one in which Guy Fawkes was discovered (maybe), was inappropriate.

But Ms Cryer may have an idea. After all, the Commons authorities have signalled they intend to extend the existing ban on smoking to cover the entire palace when the government's new anti-smoking laws come into effect

Mind you they would probably need to have the place professionally fumigated before opening it up to babes in arms.


Ming "the merciless" Campbell has just reshuffled the Lib Dem frontbench and appears to have abolished the shadow cabinet post of minister for women.

That may well reflect the fact the Tony Blair's minister Meg Munn is doing the job without pay so Ming plans to match like with like.

But on international women's day. Isn't that bad timing?

Not at all, insist the leader's office. Ming does not believe in making women a special case but wants them to have full shadow cabinet portfolios and, as a result, has doubled to four the number in the top team.

He also intends to ensure women get new help and opportunities to become MPs and progress through the ranks via the party's gender balance task force.

Meanwhile, after sacking Tom Brake as Transport spokesman, Sir Menzies still left him to face transport questions in the Commons later in the day.

Ming the merciless indeed.


New Lib Dem boss Ming Campbell is desperate to shrug off any suggestion he is a short-term, stop-gap leader.

For example, he teased his Harrogate conference with a little joke about the last Ming dynasty lasting 276 years.

But there may be at least one sign that he is not expecting to stay quite that long after all.

During the election campaign he was questioned over climate change and his attachment to his old gas guzzling, 5.3 litre V12 Jaguar XJS car.

With a clear sense of regret, he declared everyone had to make sacrifices for the environment and the old girl would have to go.

However, it appears he apparently can't bring himself to actually pension the motor off but is keeping it in a barn at his home.

For future use perhaps?


One of Westminster's great historic institutions is to be abolished.

Richard Caborn at Annie's bar pool contest
Caborn supports pool contest
Not the House of Lords or the office of Speaker, it's far more important than that.

Bean counters in the Palace of Westminster, backed by a committee of MPs, have decided that Annie's bar - probably the most famous of the dozen or so watering holes in this place - should bring down its shutters for good.

Apparently the only bar in the palace where journalists and politicians can meet on an equal footing just doesn't make enough money, so a review of catering facilities has concluded it must go.

Annie's may not draw the crowds it used to in the recent past but that is put down to New Labour banning MPs from setting foot in the place and its recent relocation to what looks like an old coal cellar.

But it still offers the only place where MPs and journalists can meet each other without being at the grace and favour of one or other of them.

Its annual pool contest, supported by Sports Minister Richard Caborn and dozens of MPs, also raises large sums for charity.

Annie's used to be an essential part of the workings of Westminster, particularly in the days of minority governments and periods when events in the Commons actually mattered.

To add insult to injury, the authorities also suggested there was no need for a closing party. Think again.


Tessa Jowell may be on tenterhooks over what the weekend newspapers have in store for her in the latest chapter on her husband's business dealings.

And Tony Blair may even be wondering what sort of reception his decision to clear his friend and colleague will have in the coming days.

But Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell is clearly something less than stressed out over his role in the affair.

Once he had delivered the facts of the case to the prime minister for his ruling, Sir Gus was on his way home looking, I am told, extremely relaxed and happy he had done his duty and, as far as he is concerned, no longer has any responsibility for the matter.

On Friday he was set to pay a visit to the North East of England meeting colleagues in his role as head of the home civil service and then there were plans for a family weekend.

Considering the way he handled his part of the "investigation" he probably has good reason to feel pleased - but he may yet have even more reason to feel relieved this is no longer sitting in his pending tray.


His wife Tessa Jowell may have been feeling a little happier this morning but David Mills was definitely having a bad car day.

He left his house to be greeted by the traditional scrum of photographers, cameramen and reporters and shouts about his business dealings.

To the confusion of all he said "check this out" and added the Italian word "strumentalizzazione", which apparently translates as manipulation.

Then he drove off in his silver BMW, running over the foot of a cameraman before smashing his wing mirror into the same unfortunate cameraman's open rear car door.

"I wonder who's going to pay for that then?" he asked - in English.

Good question.


Here's some proof that youngsters are not as turned off politics as many believe.

The annual national school essay writing competition organised by the press gallery drew more than 300 entries from around the country.

And here is what the judges said about one of the winners, 16 year old Christopher Rigby, from Wigan and his essay entitled parliament and government - spot the difference.

"he begins by quoting French philosophers and uses classic references to illustrate his point.

"He could probably give an interesting lecture on the subject, even suggesting the idea of reducing the size of the electorate by forcing voters to undergo a political intelligence test to earn their vote - but he rejects this as extreme".

Indeed, that would probably rule out most MPs and political journalists.

The other overall winner, 14 year old Thomas-Neil Hogg from Winchester College along with the 15 regional winners were treated to a tour of Westminster and lunch in the Commons before visiting Downing Street to meet the prime minister.

Tony Blair, I am reliably informed, already has his eye on a couple of potential successors.

I don't know. Young people these days.


Commons Confidential: February 2006
01 Mar 06 |  UK Politics
Commons Confidential: January 2006
01 Feb 06 |  UK Politics
Commons Confidential: December 2005
11 Jan 06 |  UK Politics
Commons Confidential: November 2005
30 Nov 05 |  UK Politics
Commons Confidential: October 2005
31 Oct 05 |  UK Politics


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