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Last Updated: Monday, 4 December 2006, 15:35 GMT
Commons Confidential: November 2006
Nick Assinder
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

Despatches from the House of Commons

Has trendsetter Tony Blair set a new rule in lunchtime etiquette?

Bowl of soup
To slurp or not to slurp
The prime minister attended a swanky lunch with senior journalists on Monday and was presented with a soup first course in a bowl with handles on each side - you know the sort of thing, like a double handled teacup.

As the other guests followed tradition and reached for their soup spoons, Mr Blair picked up his bowl by its handles and proceeded to drink it down with relish.

The surprised journos weren't exactly sure how to react to this - should they put down their spoons and follow suit or carry on regardless?

They decided to ignore it and carried on slurping. Another sign of the prime minister's waning influence perhaps?


For all those who have been living in a cave for the past decade, Gordon Brown used his annual speech at the CBI conference to remind us what a big deal globalisation is.

Gordon Brown
Brown stressed importance of globalisation
Needless to say, he has no time for the ostriches in the anti-globalisation movement and pointed out to the conference how the group seemed to be sending out mixed messages.

He told delegates that he recently turned up to one conference to be greeted by protesters carrying placards declaring: "International campaign against globalisation".


After months of work, the refurbished Westminster Hall - the oldest part of the palace - re-opened to widespread delight earlier this year.

Baroness Boothroyd
Former Speaker Boothroyd is not impressed
Sadly, not everyone is enthusiastic about the "improvements" that have been made to this 900-year-old building, in preparation for a new visitors' centre.

Former Commons Speaker Betty Boothroyd recently spotted some new, polished brass handrails that have been introduced and turned her nose up at them, claiming they were out of character with the rest of the building.

Apparently Baroness Boothroyd believes the rails are too garish and should be replaced with dark, old oak fittings.

Perhaps this little story can now form part of the guided tour of the palace which regularly sees tourists told how, during the last major refurbishment, one of Henry VIII's tennis balls was found lodged behind the hammer beams.

The Betty Boothroyd story has the added advantage, however, of actually being true.


The Commons authorities have finally got to the bottom of what is causing the latest rodent infestation.

A mouse
Mice like biscuit crumbs, apparently
And, guess what, it is all the fault of the filthy journalists - in the literal sense.

After receiving numerous complaints from hacks and members of staff about the explosion in the mouse population, the pest control operatives have inspected the premises and discovered why their best poisoning efforts have failed.

It is the "level of very poor hygiene" in the journalists offices.

Apparently there is an excess of paper (get away) which makes ideal nesting material and even some crumbs offering an "alternative food source" to the bait put down by the mice men.

Journalists and staff were mildly surprised to discover the mice prefer the odd biscuit or sandwich crumb to the food waste in the kitchens but have, in any case, come up with a solution of their own to put to the authorities.

It involves cleaners.


The mobile phone may be one of the greatest inventions of recent times - but it can also be one of the most irritating.

Youngsters using mobile phones
Russell wants a mobile phone code
And it is not just the "I'M ON THE TRAIN" brigade that get on people's nerves. The latest devices allow phone users to treat everyone within loudhailer distance to low-fi versions of their favourite pop tunes.

Now, Liberal Democrat MP Bob Russell wants the government to step in to ban such anti-social behaviour.

He has tabled a Commons motion expressing "deep concern over the growing problem of anti-social use of mobile telephones in public places".

And he has called on the government to: "require mobile phone operators to produce a code of practice setting out a phone etiquette to reduce nuisance and to regulate the use of mobile phones in public".

And what about PASBOS for offenders?


John Reid may relish his reputation as the hardest man in the Cabinet, but he has displayed a softer side with his children - sort of.

John Reid
John Reid has shown his softer side

The Home Secretary, former Defence Secretary and possible Labour leadership contender has revealed that he did smack his own children - to stop them putting their fingers in an electric socket or fire, for example - but not "systematically or very often".

But, asked by Radio Five Live's Nicky Campbell if he had been a tough dad, he revealed: "You have to draw a line in the sand somewhere ..... and say you must not step over that.

"But I think disproportionate force in any circumstances is wrong."

So Gordon Brown can relax then, if it comes to a fight for the leadership of the Labour Party Mr Reid will not resort to "disproportionate force".

Whether Mr Brown will reciprocate and keep his great "clunking" fists to himself is another matter.


One of Tony Blair's latest wheezes to engage directly with the public is to ask them to send e-petitions to the Downing Street website.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown
Blair juggling a couple of ice creams
The response has been huge with hundreds of sensible, weighty suggestions on things like electoral reform, the environment, ID cards and hunting.

There are plenty of less serious petitions, such as one suggestion to charge fat people double for using public transport or another demanding Jedi Knights are recognised as a religion on a par with Christianity, Islam and so on.

And, inevitably, there are plenty demanding the prime minister's immediate resignation.

A personal favourite, however, suggests Tony Blair should "stand on his head and juggle ice cream" on the basis that, "if he is not going to resign, the least he can do is provide us with some entertainment".

All very funny. But the most surprising thing is that this particular petition has received so many backers that only the first 500 names have been published on the site.

I wonder how long this particular initiative will last?


Consumer affairs minister Ian McCartney's generous suggestion that all MPs should donate a day's pay (165 after their pay rise this month) to the Farepak fund appears not to have gone down well with everyone in the Commons.

Farepak advertisement
MPs have been asked to help those affected by Farepak collapse

A growing number of MPs are arguing that Farepak's banker, HBOS should bear responsibility for the collapse of the Christmas hamper savings scheme, although the majority seem happy to do their bit.

Others, however, are reluctant to hand over their own cash at all.

Immediately after Mr McCartney made his offer, one MP declared in an ironic manner "thanks very much Ian",

When another was asked by his local newspaper if he was going to chip in, he replied: "I suppose I am going to have to now."

And a third resisted the notion, describing it as a "gimmick".

Even the prime minister appeared less than clear on the matter.

His official spokesman said: "Ian McCartney said it was a matter for individual MPs. They will make individual decisions."

One idea, bigheartedly suggested by another MP however, was that an "attachment to earnings" could be made on all MPs' salaries through the Commons' fees office.

Nice to see the spirit of Christmas has arrived early in Westminster.


What on earth could make the prime minister blush? You may well ask.

Tony Blair
Perhaps he should not have said that
The answer is to drop a clanger that could see the PC police, not to mention Cherie, on his case big time.

During his monthly press conference, Tony Blair apologised for missing out one female questioner - the political editor of a Labour supporting tabloid - declaring: "I meant to take you darling."

Flustered and flushed, he quickly moved on, undoubtedly hoping no one had noticed....


It is sometimes hard for Cabinet ministers to let go when they are sacked or demoted and they all have their own ways of dealing with it.

Geoff Hoon
Hoon has a very special plaque
Former Defence Secretary and Commons Leader Geoff Hoon - demoted to Europe minister in Tony Blair's last re-shuffle - is eager, for example, to remind colleagues he may no longer be a full Cabinet minister but is still allowed to sit in on the weekly meetings, although not vote.

The official plaque on his ministerial office leaves no room for doubt.

It has the usual label declaring that the Rt Hon Geoff Hoon is minister for Europe, but adds "attending cabinet". So there.

His current boss, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, appears unimpressed, however.

There are several reports that the two are at daggers drawn after Mrs Beckett banned Mr Hoon from answering on Europe in the regular foreign office question time sessions in the Commons but said he could talk about Uganda.

Mr Hoon refused, insisting that was not his responsibility - Europe was.

But Mrs Beckett was having none of it, allegedly declaring: "I am foreign secretary and that's it". It is claimed she was angry that Mr Hoon was trying to act as joint-foreign secretary.

The whisper is that the prime minister has also refused to weigh in on his old friend's side.

He told MPs during prime minister's questions only that: "What Mr Hoon is doing on behalf of this country and in Europe is absolutely excellent".

And the official Downing Street line is that the two ministers' roles are "clear".

Still this unseemly spat won't go on too long. I am assured Mr Hoon has yet to be pencilled in for a ministerial job in Gordon Brown's planned top team.


Ex-minister David Blunkett brought the House down when he stood up in the Commons debate on Iraq to support his leader - but not, presumably, in quite the way he had planned.

David Blunkett
Blunkett was attempting to support Tony Blair

The former home secretary, who has been forced to quit the Cabinet twice amid controversy, started his remarks with the sentence: "What a tangled web we weave."

When the laughter and jeers - some coming from his own Labour colleagues - finally died down it emerged what he was talking about was the Conservative Party's decision to demand an inquiry after backing the war on Iraq.

Commons Confidential: October 2006
01 Nov 06 |  UK Politics
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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