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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 October 2006, 08:05 GMT 09:05 UK
Commons Confidential: July 2006
Nick Assinder
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

Despatches from the House of Commons


Know your enemy is not just a sensible bit of military advice - it applies to politicians as well.

Keith Simpson
Mr Simpson had the last laugh
And it is something foreign minister Kim Howells should take to heart after an embarrassing clash with his Tory opposite number, Keith Simpson, during a debate on the Middle East crisis.

Mr Simpson had asked a detailed question about Israel's tactics in the current conflict when Mr Howells attempted a putdown.

"I am not a military strategist and I am not aware that he is...." he started to say before being swamped by a chorus of shouts of "yes he is" and, jokingly, "he's a general", from the Tory benches.

Much laughter at Mr Howells' blunder followed as the minister offered his apology, stating: "He's a general is he? I just thought he was a good bloke".

Just for the record, Mr Simpson is a military historian and has been director of Cranfield Security Studies Institute, Cranfield University, a senior lecturer in war studies and international affairs at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and has written five books on military history

Or, put more simply, he knows what he is talking about.


One sure sign that it is the last full day of business before the Commons rises for its long summer break - there are 44 written ministerial statements being published instead of the usual two or three.

Ferrari car
A present for the Chancellor's kids?
There is, we are always assured, absolutely nothing suspicious about the timing. It is just that ministers and their departments are so overburdened there is always a backlog that has to be rushed out at the last moment.

Still, it gives political hacks something to do on the last day of term as they attempt to dig out the nuggets from the dross.

The most eagerly awaited statement was the list of ministerial gifts valued over 140 handed out by foreign governments, politicians and so on.

This is the document that includes John Prescott's cowboy outfit. Had it not been for the row over the deputy prime minister's links with US Dome owner Philip Anschutz, this would probably have been the first time the gift would have come to light.

As the world and its dog now knows, "Clint" Prescott was given a Stetson, boots, spurs, belt, buckle and leather bound notebook by the billionaire business so he could ride around his ranch carrying out his ministerial duties.

He chose not to buy the gifts, which he is able to do, but handed them over to his department. (Does he ever sneak into his office at night to try them on again?).

Mr Prescott declared no other gifts and most other ministers declared nothing at all.

Unsurprisingly, the prime minister received the largest number (17), including four separate gifts of wine from President Chirac.

He didn't buy any of it but did chose to purchase a lead crystal vase worth 150 from the Italian government, a set of five Russian commemorative coins worth 200 from the Russian government, and a contemporary print of London worth 300 from London 2012.

Chancellor Gordon Brown just could not resist the Ferrari.

OK it was a pedal car worth 190 which was presented to him by the Italian finance minister and will come in handy for his ever-growing family.


Tory frontbencher Boris Johnson appears to have developed an uncanny knack of bumping into the right people at just the right time - and then causing maximum mischief by reporting their remarks.

Boris Johnson
Boris has scoop on Blair's retirement date
First it was Tony Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, who was supposed to have ridiculed Gordon Brown's prime ministerial hopes.

Now it is Alastair Campbell who is claimed to have revealed the prime minister will not quit for "a year and a bit".

Last June, bicycling Boris had a traffic lights encounter with Mr Powell who was also cycling through London.

According to Boris, Powell told him Gordon Brown's ambitions were a "Shakespearian tragedy".

"He is like the guy who thinks he's going to be king but never gets it. He's never going to be prime minister," reported Boris in the Spectator magazine, which he then edited.

The prime minister's official spokesman said: "Jonathan did not say it".

Now, just as speculation is rife that Tony Blair will quit or announce his quitting plans at this year's Labour conference, Boris has bumped into Ali C at a coffee stall at Lord's cricket ground.

Boris allegedly asked the obvious question about when the PM would resign and was startled to be given the answer "a year and a bit", according, once again, to the Spectator.

Now make what you will of that - and the Brownies in Westminster will undoubtedly make mountains out of it.

But is it just a coincidence that it came after the prime minister himself appeared to reveal he was planning still to be PM in a year's time, at least?

And isn't it funny that more than one Labour loyalist has told me privately that the prime minister will go at the 2007 party conference?

Do we smell a concerted campaign and, if so, what does it all mean? Is Gordon being warned of something, is there an attempt to wrong foot everybody, is the prime minister trying to silence his critics by having a specific date entered into the Labour's hive mind.

Or do politicians, pundits and hacks in Westminster simply need to take a holiday.


For those who fear politicians believe they are above the law, here are a couple of cases where the law's view that all men are equal (i.e either criminals or potential criminals) has held firm.

Damon Hill and Tony Blair
Hill and Blair were banned from the roads
Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is already apparently preparing for a chat with the Met on other matters, fell foul of an eagle eyed officer as he was planning a photocall with racing driver Damon Hill and a formula 1 car in Downing Street to mark the return of the motor show to London.

The vehicle arrived in sections and was assembled in the Ministry of Defence car park opposite Downing Street.

But as technicians attempted to wheel it the short distance across Whitehall to Downing Street they were informed by the officer that, as the car had no MoT, tax or insurance it could not take to a public road.

So Blair, Hill and entourage had to walk across the road for the picture opportunity before returning to No 10 for a reception to mark the event.

And no, Bernie Ecclestone was nowhere in sight.

Meanwhile, former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy discovered those colourful custodians of the Tower of London, the Beefeaters, are more than just tourist attractions.

Mr Kennedy was giving a TV interview near the Tower when he was approached by one of the Yeoman Warders, to give them their real title, and told he was causing an obstruction and should "move along please".


Oh dear, President Bush appears to have started a trend with his "Yo Blair" remark.

George Bush and Tony Blair
Check the microphone is off next time George
The prime minister's official spokesman opened this morning's daily lobby briefing in his normal way with a cheery (ish) "good morning" before adding to much hilarity, "or as we now say, Yo".

It is, of course, these overheard remarks not intended for public consumption that so often end up attaching themselves forever to politicians.

Remember John Major and the "bastards" in his cabinet who he promised to "crucify". It was taken to suggest a lack of authority.

The question now is how his successor as prime minister finds his overheard conversation with the US president interpreted.


After giving Tory leader David Cameron a cuddly new image as a bike riding chameleon, Labour appears to have done it again.

David Cameron
A bit more free advertising
Click onto the official Labour party website and the first thing that greets you is a large picture of the Tory leader with, helpfully, his name in capital letters against a bright blue background.

Only after a short downwards scroll do you come to the bit that adds: "breaks his EPP promise".

I'm told Conservative Central Office is far from furious at this "attack" suspecting that many voters will have no idea what the EPP is.

"Just another bit of free advertising for our man," said one.


The once-infamous Annie's bar may have been shut down by the Commons accountants, but the spirit lives on in the shape of the Annie.

The Annie's bar pool contest
The annual Westminster pool contest goes on
This is the coveted trophy handed to the winner of the annual Annie's bar pool tournament, which has become one of the highlights of Westminster's social and sporting calendar.

The contest is still going ahead this year, with the support of MPs across all parties and including sports minister himself, Dick Caborn.

But where will the contestants play the early stages of the contest before the grand final on the Commons terrace bar in January?

Well, the pool table has been left in Annie's while the authorities work out what to do with the room they were so eager to get their hands on

So MPs and other contestants will have to play the early games in the old bar which has been stripped of all ornamentation and where they will no longer be able to get a drink.

That should concentrate their minds on the game.


Publicist Max Clifford has been involved in some of the juiciest scandals to have hit politics over recent years.

Max Clifford
Clifford teased an audience of journalists
So when he addressed a lunch with political journalists we were eager to hear what he might have to say about current affairs.

There was plenty he would like to tell us in private, he said. But, as his comments were on the record, he had to be more circumspect, he declared. The tease.

However, he did whet appetites by saying: "Who knows what might be happening in the not too distant future."

I suspect he knows, for one.


It looks like the World Cup is going to be remembered for two specific events - a kick in the shorts and a butt in the chest.

Wayne Rooney
The kick that marred the world cup
And the way the entire contest unfolded has clearly brought Labour's Glasgow MP David Marshall to the end of the tether.

He has tabled a Commons motion praising Germany for the way it ran the games, but he then lets rip.

He says the competition will be remembered for "the cheating, complaining to referees, cynical professional fouls, diving, elbowing, feigning injury, lack of sportsmanship, shirt pulling, simulation and time wasting by too many grossly overpaid so-called superstar players who behaved more like spoilt brats and set a disgraceful example to millions of young fans".

There's more, he points out that "a record number of red and yellow cards were dished out by referees, some of whom appeared to be incompetent and short-sighted".

And, turning on the football authorities, he adds "the discredited leadership of the President of FIFA did not help".

Blimey. Perhaps I should have watched some of it after all.


This is what counts as wit in the House of Commons.

Greg Pope
What fun they had with Pope's name
When Labour MP Greg Pope was chairing the Commons committee debating a Church of England measure, Tory wag Sir Patrick Cormack brought the house down, apparently, by declaring: "This is a most historic day for the Church Of England because we are being presided over by a Pope.''

And yes, Mr Pope is a Catholic.

If you have recovered from that belter, here's a better one concerning the same MP.

Mr Pope was the subject of a genuinely funny practical joke when he first entered parliament in 1997 and was allocated his named cloakroom peg.

His tag - Pope, Gregory - was removed, had the number 1 added to it and was replaced next to the that of Democratic Unionist, the Rev Ian Paisley.

How they laughed.


Tory MP Peter Atkinson may not have endeared himself to some animal rightists with his campaign to save the red squirrel.

Grey squirrel
Grey squirrel said to be tasty
But I now fear he has also invoked the wrath of vegetarians.

Speaking during a debate on the future of Northumberland's red squirrels, he confessed that the last time he did so his office had been flooded with around 500 letters from people condemning him as "a cruel and evil man who wanted to exterminate grey squirrels".

But worse was to come, he went on to reveal he has now developed a bit of a taste for grey squirrels. Literally.

"At the risk of a further 500 letters, I have to say that I have actually tasted grey squirrel - they eat it in America.

"Although there is not a lot of meat on it, to say the least. It tastes rather like chicken and is quite palatable.''


Policemen at the Palace of Westminster are notorious for their mischievous sense of humour when it comes to dealing with tourists.

Big Ben
Big Ben's chimes have been silenced
For example, they once nominated a camera-shy constable as the "official" PC to be photographed by visitors eager to be snapped with a British bobby.

But the latest wheeze takes the biscuit.

Apparently when tourists ask why Big Ben has been silenced for work on the famous bell, they are told: "Because it's going digital."


Commons Confidential: June 2006
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Commons Confidential: May 2006
05 Jun 06 |  UK Politics
Commons Confidential: April 2006
02 May 06 |  UK Politics
Commons Confidential: March 2006
19 Apr 06 |  UK Politics
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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