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Friday, 19 November, 1999, 17:19 GMT
Conceived by a spin doctor?


By political correspondent Nick Assinder

It's a spin doctor's dream come true - "the people's baby."

Just as the New Labour government appeared to be heading for a seriously bumpy ride over broken election pledges and the London mayor shambles, Cherie Blair falls pregnant.

At a stroke, all the negative stories have been swept away and every media outlet is obsessed with the idea of the first baby in No 10 since 1848.

Beaten by the Blairs

It is the only topic of conversation in the Commons bars and the tea-room and, for once, it is a good news story.

Politicians from all sides have been queuing up to congratulate the Blairs and Home Secretary Jack Straw takes the prize as the first person to brand the offspring "the people's baby."

William Hague and Ffion were amongst the first to offer congratulations, even though they must be seething that, even on this, they have been beaten by the Blairs.

And it is a story that will run and run - probably long after the Blairs have left office.

Another first for the Blairs
The entire pregnancy will be the subject of intense media speculation and comment. Only a Royal baby would be better and there is little chance of one of those in the near future.

The Blair baby will be born in May, just as the mayoral contest comes to a head and as the next general election campaign kicks off.

And it cements a certain image of "The Blairs" in the mind of the voters - particularly the 40-something middle classes the government is frantic to keep on board.

Apparently even the arch media manipulator Max Clifford has claimed he knew about the pregnancy some time ago.

If only the spin doctors really had such control of events.

Family people

The truth is, of course, the Blairs are deeply committed family people who have suddenly found themselves expecting.

They are clearly delighted and will do everything in their power to spare their new child the consequences of its background and timing.

The overwhelming majority of people - even politicians - are genuinely pleased for them.

The only real worry is over accommodation. No 10 was too small for the existing family so they did a "house swap" with Gordon Brown at No 11.

But the chancellor's residence has only four bedrooms, all of which are occupied by the existing family.

There are two options - kick Gordon out of No 10 and knock the two through into a "spacious family accommodation" or move out.

The smart money in Westminster is that the removal lorries will soon be seen in Downing Street.

No interruptions

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is known for his short temper but Labour's Reading West MP Martin Salter is not easily intimidated.

Mr Salter was launching an attack in the Commons on the government's plans to sell off the air traffic control system.

Martin Salter's minute of fame
Mr Prescott, who as transport secretary is responsible for the project, suddenly leapt to his feet.

Desperate to put his wayward backbencher right he asked, in the usual polite Commons tradition, "Will my honourable friend give way?"

Prime ministers regularly refuse to allow such interruptions from opposition MPs and, sometimes, even members of their own side.

But backbenchers are normally so terrified of their bosses that, if one of them tries to interrupt, they immediately give way. Not Mr Salter.

He bluntly replied: "In a minute", leaving Mr Prescott to sit back down and wait while the MP had finished his point.

Several minutes later, having said his piece, Mr Salter declared: "I give way to my right honourable friend the deputy prime minister" - to which delighted Tories yelled back: "Too late, he's just left the chamber."

Apparently the disgruntled Prescott's patience with his rebellious member had run out and he had stomped out.

MPs are now lining up to witness the first meeting between the two men in the Commons tea-room.

Bleeping error

The selection of a candidate to run for London mayor has proved a nightmare for Labour bosses and spin doctors.

Message received and misunderstood
But, as the whole thing was spiralling out of control, party whip Gerry Sutcliffe received a pager message that nearly finished him off.

Mr Sutcliffe is the captain of the Commons football team and the alarming bleep came from the chairman of the London Labour Party Jim Fitzpatrick.

It read: "Can't play today - mayor shoplifting."

His whole life flashed before him until the penny finally dropped. The message should have read "mayor shortlisting."

Speaking too soon

Shadow Transport Secretary John Redwood is without doubt one of the hardest workers in the Commons.

Nothing gets past him and he has a well-deserved reputation for harrying the government at every turn. But he outdid himself over the Queen Speech.

So eager was he to attack his opposite number John Prescott that he slightly jumped the gun.

In withering press release entitled "Queen's Speech fails to deliver" he declared: "Where is the bill to deliver a fairer deal for motorists, the road haulage industry, London's tube travellers and rural communities?

"The Queen's Speech offers nothing but higher taxes and poorer services for the travelling public."

All fair enough - except Mr Redwood released it the day before the speech was delivered and before anyone was supposed to know what was in it.

It is the government's fault, of course. They are so used to revealing every piece of policy before telling parliament about it that Mr Redwood was on safe ground.

He assumed he had already read in the newspapers everything that was going to be in the announcement. And he was right.

The only snag came the next day, once the speech had been made, and he had to issue a new press release.

He rose to the occasion and shot out a release entitled - you've guessed it - "Prescott's plans fail to deliver."

Modern monarch

A number of commentators noticed the increasingly political nature of the Queen's Speech.

Modernising the Queen
It started last year but was far more in evidence this year, and many believe they spotted the fingerprints of Tony Blair's spin doctor Alastair Campbell.

The words delivered in the Lords by the Queen are supposed to be written by civil servants and have traditionally been so bland that videos of the speech could have been sold as insomnia cures.

But this year the Queen banged on about "providing people with real opportunities to liberate their potential" and the like.

But, if there are any doubts that New Labour had got its claws into the speech then one simple test lays them to rest.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown go to sleep at night chanting "modernise, modernise, modernise" - and now the Queen is at it as well.

The word appeared no less than eight times in a speech that lasted less than 20 minutes
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