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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 November 2006, 09:48 GMT
Commons Confidential: October 2006
Nick Assinder
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

Despatches from the House of Commons

I don't know what they are putting in the food in the Commons canteen - but a new breed of super mice appears to have grown fat on the scraps falling from the tables.

A mouse
Mice have taken over the Commons press gallery
I am currently sitting in the press gallery office writing this diary while a small, brown rodent gazes up at me with a look of total disdain on its whiskers.

This mouse has become such a regular visitor I am tempted to give it a name. Others in the press gallery are less enamoured of their new "pets" which, since the summer's building work, have been running riot throughout the area.

The pest controllers have been called in but, I am told, there may be little they can do.

The traps which have been a permanent feature in the palace for years appear to do no good - the mice avoid them like the, er, plague. And there is a suspicion they have developed an immunity to poison.

So these Super Jerrys can probably only be tackled by a squad of equally Super Toms - and idea previously ruled out as impractical.

Still, it gives the lie to the old myth that mice and rats (never mind reptiles) can't live in the same area.

And there he goes again - across the carpet.....


It is a dilemma movie moguls have presumably had to face many times - what to do with expensive merchandising when your latest film fails to bust any blocks?

John Prescott
The latest dilemma for John Prescott
But it may come as a surprise to discover that John Prescott is facing the same problem.

In order to promote the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister at exhibitions and events, Mr Prescott spent 5,095 over the last four years on branded pens, carrier bags and note pads.

Unfortunately for Prezza, of course, his department was abolished by Tony Blair in his last reshuffle. So, not unreasonably, Tory spokesman Caroline Spelman has asked exactly what the pens are now being used for.

She received the following answer from minister Angela Smith.

"The ODPM branded pens are being used to write with". Ask a silly question....

But what some Tories now want to know is, what is John Prescott being used for?


It seems an attempt by Liberal Democrat MP Bob Russell to tick off Downing Street for failing to be politically correct has backfired on him.

Bob Russell
Mr Russell has stirred up the grey lobby
Mr Russell hit out after he read that the prime minister's official spokesman had referred to the "black economy" during a briefing with journalists.

He immediately fired off a complaint, telling parliamentary news service, Gallery News, the phrase was racist.

"I am shocked that Downing Street uses the reference 'black economy' - this term was dropped years ago, certainly by state organisations like Customs and Excise, to the more sensitively acceptable term 'grey economy' or 'shadow economy'.

" The term 'black economy' has racial overtones. Downing Street is thus politically incorrect to use this term."

This may well be the case, but did 60-year-old, silver -haired Mr Russell know what he was going to stir up.

With politicians falling over themselves to appeal to the pensioner vote and outlawing ageism, he may want to think again.

I am told there have already been complaints about his remarks and that the term "grey" also now falls foul of the PC police.

I have no idea what the shadow lobby thinks about it all.


Bonfire night is approaching so enjoy it - if some MPs get their way it may be the last of its kind.

Firework display
Some MPs want to ban fireworks
A number of backbenchers, led by Labour's Lindsay Hoyle, believe the time has come to ban fireworks.

There are already restrictions on their sale, but Mr Hoyle has tabled a Commons motion demanding an all-out ban.

He is worried about the distress caused to both residents and pets - which often have to be sedated to help them cope with bonfire night - and the continuing "use and abuse" of them by young people.

And he is urging parliament to impose a complete ban on the private sale of fireworks except for organised displays where a licence should be granted by local authorities.

All well and good, perhaps, but why not go the whole hog and ban bonfire night altogether?

After all, it does involve a ritualistic burning of effigies of would-be bomber Guy Fawkes - still a controversial act in some eyes.

But that might take all the fun out of 5 November.


Someone in the parliamentary works department (perhaps) clearly has a sense of humour.

White Box
Rachel Whiteread's sculpture resembles the mysterious box
Staff and journalists in the press gallery have been bemused by the sudden appearance of a small wooden box in the centre of the canteen - currently being refurbished in preparation for it becoming the bar next year.

Is it perhaps a work of art or sculpture similar to "White Box" by Rachel Whiteread recently auctioned at Sotheby's.

Now an FAQ notice has been attached to the thing and reads as follows.

Q: What is it?

A: It is a box.

Q: Why?

A: Why not?

Q: Why is it here?

A: It has to be somewhere.

Q: Why can't it be somewhere else?

A: That is a boxist question which we will not dignify with an answer.

Q: Why does it exist?

A: 42.

Q: What is underneath it?

A: Service pipes for next year's bar counter. (At last we get to it)

We are sorry for any inconvenience this may cause.

Signed by the Parliamentary Works?

All very witty. But has no one noticed something else - something a bit bigger, quite a lot bigger actually, that also appeared overnight right in the middle of the empty canteen area.

Something like a large windowless office, or perhaps shed?

I hate to ask for an explanation of that one.


Wrekin's Tory MP Mark Pritchard has not had this best week in Parliament.

Mark Pritchard
He has been lobbying party bosses to get him out of the windowless office he is currently occupying into one that allows him to see daylight and blue sky.

In a desperate last bid for a hearing he has now gone so far as to pen an "Ode to a Window" and fired it off to his party's deputy chief whip, Baroness Seccombe (and, no, I don't have the words).

"I think she liked it. I will be waiting to see what she says," he enthused.

He was still waiting in the dark, as it were, when, during questions to Commons leader Jack Straw, he pursued another of the bees in his bonnet.

"Can we have an urgent debate on why thousands of car drivers in the borough of Telford and Wrekin are having their journeys disrupted every single day as a result of the Labour leadership's decision, on that council, to introduce new traffic signals at the Ketley Brook roundabout and the Trench roundabout.

"If the leader of the House doesn't believe me, can I invite him to come and see it for himself," he pleaded.

Mr Straw's withering reply: "Of course I believe the Hon Gentleman but I don't think much of his powers of advocacy if he can't get the traffic lights turned round."

I fear Mr Straw may soon be receiving an "Ode to a Traffic Light".


Political leaders may be falling over themselves to prove which is the greenest and most concerned about global warming - so it is a change to discover at least one politician who is less than bothered.

Global warming threatens a hotter Britain
Former Labour frontbencher Lord Sheldon asked Environment Minister Lord Rooker during a peers' debate what assessment the government had made of the future of climate change.

He received the now-traditional, gloomy reply. Latest reports showed that, by 2100, global temperatures would have risen by up to 5.8 degrees higher than 1990, resulting in higher sea levels and more extreme weather.

"For the UK ... scenarios project warmer and wetter winters and hotter and drier summers with more extreme heatwaves," he declared.

Lord Sheldon appeared to take heart from this, suggesting that, as global warming could mean a warmer Britain it might even be welcomed : "as we have seen this summer".

So, bring it on, and here's looking forward to the Costa Del Cambridge in a few years' time perhaps.


Culture secretary Tessa Jowell's offices may look impressive from the outside - but they have been hit by a number of problems that have helped land taxpayers with a redecoration bill of more than 20,000 over the past five years.

Department of Culture. Media and Sport
Culture secretary's offices have suffered some problems
First, while contractors were cleaning the exterior stone work of the building, normally done with powerful jets of water, the office suffered "an ingress" - that's a flood to you and me. (Perhaps someone left a window open).

That little incident led to a 1,200 redecorating bill in 2002.

Just three years later, however, the same office was repainted again, at a cost of another 1,300. But that was part of a planned schedule of works.

Mind you, only another year later, the entire building was refurbished at a cost of another 18,164. That too was planned.

But part of that cost was down to replacing furniture "damaged by faulty air conditioning" (Another flood?).

So, that's a bill for 20,664 over the past five years - excluding VAT, of course.

Perhaps they shouldn't do so much planning in future and just let events take their course, it might be cheaper.


It has come as a bit of a surprise to learn that just five Labour MPs - notably including Clare Short - have so far declared their intention of standing down at the next general election.

House of Commons
Labour MPs have missed resignation deadline
That poll may be a good way off yet, but if local constituency parties are to follow Labour's selection procedures they need plenty of time to find a new candidate.

So MPs were asked by party HQ to inform them by 15 September if they intended to stand down or not. Even allowing a few weeks' grace, there still appear to have been few takers - there are normally some 30 or 40 who go at each election.

That does not, of course, prevent MPs changing their minds over the following months and years.

But, if they leave it too close to the next general election, the selection procedure can be short circuited by party bosses with candidates, in effect, parachuted in to the seat at the last moment.

It has been suggested that MPs have previously been leaned on to hold fire on their resignation intentions so the party could put one of their favourites, such as a Tory defector, into safe seats.

Peerages have, perhaps unsurprisingly, been offered to those MPs who carry out this duty for the party.

Perhaps also unsurprisingly, there is at least one former MP who still feels aggrieved that the peerage promise he believed he was given was never actually kept.


When Nigel Farage was recently elected as the new leader of the UK Independence Party, few of his supporters probably knew how a life-forming event more than two decades ago may have deprived them of their champion.

Nigel Farage
Farage's career may have taken a different path
The young Farage's first love was not politics but golf. And he was pretty good.

So good, in fact, that at the age of 18 he came within a shot of winning the English Schoolboys' National Golf Championship played at Foxhills.

Unfortunately for the budding Nick Faldo, he dropped a shot on the 18th hole and so failed to win the contest.

Had he won, I am told, he would almost certainly have gone professional.

Since then, however, politics has become his life and he hasn't swung a club in anger for the best part of a decade.

So, golf's loss was, eventually, UKIP's gain.


So John Reid and Gordon Brown are daggers drawn and squaring up to each other for a fight to the death over the Labour leadership are they?

Tony Blair and John Reid
Mr Reid: Will he challenge Mr Brown?
After Mr Reid's confident party conference performance - in which he managed to talk up his leadership credentials without actually saying he was interested in the job - that was a reasonable conclusion to draw.

But the latest gossip in Westminster is that, after throwing a genuine scare into the Brown camp with his speech, Mr Reid has now reassured the chancellor he has no intention of running against him - that's code for no chance of beating him.

In return, the chancellor will keep him on the front bench in a senior role - possibly remaining as Home Secretary - not as his tea boy, as Mr Reid previously quipped.

So, that speech can be counted a major success as, before he made it, Mr Reid was expected to be exiled to the backbenches by Mr Brown once he got into Downing Street.

But, if true, what could all this mean for Tony Blair and his little band of supporters?

They would have to start looking for another champion to "stop Gordon", perhaps with Mr Blair attempting to hang on as long as possible to allow another contender to emerge.

But after looking at one time or another to David Blunkett, Alan Milburn, Alan Johnson and Uncle Tom Cobley (so long as he's a Blairite), candidates are thin on the ground.

Step forward Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton, your time may be at hand. That is, after all, how John Major ended up Tory leader - because he wasn't Michael Heseltine.

Then again....

Commons Confidential: July 2006
10 Oct 06 |  UK Politics
Commons Confidential: June 2006
04 Jul 06 |  UK Politics
Commons Confidential: May 2006
05 Jun 06 |  UK Politics

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