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Last Updated: Monday, 15 October 2007, 11:23 GMT 12:23 UK
Commons Confidential: July/Aug 07
Nick Assinder
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

Despatches from the House of Commons

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when Gordon Brown eagerly opened his present from President George Bush to discover it was a brown, fur-trimmed, leather bomber jacket - an aviator to be precise.

President Bush and Tony Blair in 2001
President Bush, wearing a similar jacket, also gave one to Mr Blair
"Oh thanks, George, just what I've always wanted. What is it?"

It is, in fact, the sort of jacket worn by US fighter pilots (at least they do in the films) and members of the Village People and may conjure up thoughts of shock and awe in Iraq.

Probably not the image Mr Brown wants to create.

The president has a stock of them as official Camp David mementoes. He wears one himself from time to time and gave one to Tony Blair on his first visit to Camp David in 2001.

Mr Blair, needless to say, rather took to his and was later pictured wearing it as he clambered, GI Joe-style, into a helicopter.

Mr Brown's, I am reliably informed, has a name tag with his official title, Rt Hon Gordon Brown, on the left breast and a Camp David badge with the presidential seal on the other.

However, the item was left rather dismissively in its large, gold-papered box in an economy-class seat in the prime minister's plane on his return trip to the UK.

And what did Mr Brown give the president? Apparently a political biography.

Meanwhile, I will be keeping a close eye on eBay.

  • Now that the sun has finally come out, I shall be taking a holiday. But I'll be back in due course.

    1030 GMT, MONDAY 30 JULY

    Tony Blair and George Bush had their "Colgate" moment - when it was revealed by the president during their first meeting that they both used the same toothpaste.

    A cheeseburger
    Gordon Brown has been served traditional US food
    Now, Gordon Brown has been given his "pudding" moment with the president.

    The White House has released details of the dinner provided for the two leaders at their Camp David meeting.

    After a main course of roast tenderloin of beef, mashed potatoes, sautéed green beans and peas with smoked bacon and mint, they enjoyed a dessert of, you guessed it, brownies with caramel and vanilla sauce.

    Good old US humour or a happy accident?

    The White House also revealed that Monday's lunch menu was classic American fare - cheeseburgers, French fries and onion rings, followed by banana pudding.

    So, they must have a McDonalds at Camp David then.

    A suggestion - if the president visits Mr Brown, perhaps a menu of haggis and neeps washed down with a pint of heavy.


    It's one of the unwritten laws of life - a parent's job is to embarrass their offspring.

    Ed Balls and Gordon Brown
    Mr Balls is a close friend of the prime minister

    Doing the "dad dance" at weddings, insisting on ferrying their teenagers to and from the front door at parties, that sort of thing.

    So, when it was discovered the father of schools secretary Ed Balls, Professor Michael Balls, was involved in a legal challenge to government animal testing regulations, the obvious question arose - was he worried about embarrassing his son.

    "I am sure I have been embarrassing him all his life so I do not think it is anything particularly new now. I am an outspoken person. I believe in what I say and say what I believe," he declared.

    On this particular issue, however, he said his son was "broadly supportive of what I do".

    I suspect, rather than embarrassment, Mr Balls may feel a certain amount of pride in the way his father has stuck to his guns.

    Especially as Balls senior made clear in his BBC radio interview that the 20 years of government policy he was unhappy with covered the Thatcher/Major/Blair years. Not the Brown/Balls years.

    1530 GMT, THURSDAY 19 JULY

    Trust a traffic warden to take the shine off somebody's day.

    Labour's new MP for Ealing Southall, Virendra Sharma, had not even managed to take his seat in the Commons before he fell foul of the local parking attendants.

    He made the mistake of parking his ornate campaign battle minibus close to the Commons and failing to notice it strayed into a second parking bay.

    An eagle eyed Westminster council warden - are there any other sort - quickly noticed, however, and slapped a fixed penalty ticket on the offending vehicle.

    1530 GMT, THURSDAY 19 JULY

    Shadow home secretary David Davis wins the prize for the shortest, sharpest answer yet given by a guest at the monthly lunch for political journalists.

    David Davis
    Mr Davis gave short, sharp answer
    Mr Davis was asked, first what advice he thinks Alastair Campbell would have given him had he been running his campaign to be leader of the Tory party and, second, what he believed David Cameron's biggest mistake had been so far.

    After no more than a nanosecond's pause, Mr Davis replied: "He would have advised me not to answer the second question."

    It was the only time I have witnessed a guest getting a round of applause half way through his appearance.

    1130 GMT, THURSDAY 19 JULY

    It's nice to see the plain English campaign making headway in Whitehall.

    The latest example came from chief secretary to the Treasury, Andy Burnham in a statement on public services.

    Speaking about public service agreements, he told his audience: "I want to be clear, because I want the way we set and manage our priorities to be easily understandable, in plain English, and jargon-free, so that anyone can pick it up and understand it."

    And the title of the next session of his speech, handed to journalists?

    "Characteristics of CSR07 PSAs".


    It has been brought to my attention, quite rightly, that the choice of title by Britain's new trade minister Digby, Lord Jones of Birmingham is not as unusual as first thought.

    Alfred, Lord Tennyson
    The Lord who probably started it all
    The first such example probably came back in the 19th century when it was adopted by Baron Tennyson, who was known (quite widely as it turned out) as Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

    Perhaps Digby, Lord Jones had the former poet Laureate, and author of The Charge of the Light Brigade, in mind when he decided how to title himself.

    1130 GMT, TUESDAY 17 JULY

    This may be a first - a government minister insisting his party politics and the way he votes at general elections are nobody else's business.

    Digby, Lord Jones of Birmingham
    Lord Jones insists his political beliefs are a secret
    But that is exactly what Digby, Lord Jones of Birmingham - and more on that title later - told a committee of MPs probing his appointment by Gordon Brown to "the government of all the talents".

    Few, if any MPs ever suspected that Lord Jones, the former boss of the Confederation of British Industry, was a Labour man. Indeed many of his new colleagues assumed he was anything but.

    And the new peer has at least confirmed he is not a member of the party and has no intention of joining it, or any other political party. Although he will take the party whip in the Lords.

    He intends to be a team player and support the government in all it does, but rise above party politics.

    But he told the committee in no uncertain terms that his political views were none of their business.

    Secret vote

    Asked by Labour's Lindsay Hoyle to "join the club, be a team member and pay your dues like the rest of us", the minister came up with his unusual, possibly unique answer.

    "I have chosen to take a particular route and my party politics is my affair."

    Challenged over alleged comments he had previously made, stating he had voted Conservative, voted Liberal but would never vote Labour, he challenged the MP to provide the evidence.

    "When did I say I never voted Labour.? How I voted in all my elections since I was 18 years old is actually a matter for me and no one else but I think all of you here would be absolutely surprised how I voted.

    "But I would suggest that remains what I always thought was democracy in this country, which is secret."

    So, asked Mr Hoyle, if his relationship with the Labour government "ended in tears" as many had predicted, would he give back his peerage?

    "Certainly not," said Lord Jones of Birmingham before going on to offer another puzzling insight into his appointment.

    He revealed he had not only not asked for his peerage or the job as trade minister, but that he had even told the prime minister he did not need to be a minister to do it.

    Which raised the inevitable question of why Mr Brown then felt it necessary to risk the resentment of colleagues and give him the job in the first place.

    The MP should ask "your prime minister" that one, said Lord Jones, apparently forgetting Mr Brown was now his prime minister as well.

    Brand Digby

    To round it all off, Tory committee chairman Peter Luff asked him, should the Conservatives win the next election and the new PM asked him to carry on with the job, would he be happy to do so.

    "No comment," was the reply to that one.

    None of this will go down very well with the Labour MPs and peers who are already deeply concerned, resentful and pessimistic about this appointment.

    And the muttering that this is one relationship that will end in tears has only been intensified by this session.

    But back to that title. The new minister has chosen to call himself Digby, Lord Jones of Birmingham on all his official documents.

    That is a bit of a first as well - very modern. Presumably he believes brand Digby is worth preserving.

    The jury of his new comrades is still out on that.

    1130 GMT, MONDAY 16 JULY

    One widely-read Westminster blogger has offered staff and colleagues a useful guide on all the roof terraces and gardens in the Commons and associated buildings which are available to them over the summer months.

    House of Commons
    Roof terraces are a summer treat
    Images of researchers sipping Pimms while gazing over London from the roof of, for example, the MPs' office block in Parliament Street immediately leapt to mind.

    As they presumably did to the Tory researcher who followed the detailed instructions on how to access one of these little pools of peacefulness and tranquillity.

    Sadly, the youngster let the door to this particular roof space slam shut behind him and ended up being locked out.

    He is probably lucky that his calls for help attracted a sympathetic colleague, who freed him, rather than the security officers who may have taken a less charitable course.

    1130 GMT, THURSDAY 12 JULY

    Is twice-resigned former minister David Blunkett preparing himself for another political comeback, or just trying to set the record straight on his past achievements.

    David Blunkett
    Mr Blunkett has a record of achievements behind him
    Either way, he has managed to heap praise on colleagues three times in the past two weeks while at the same time, perhaps coincidentally, pointing out what a great minister he was in the past.

    First of all he lavished praise on outgoing prime minister Tony Blair for his law and order policies - many of which were introduced by the then home secretary, David Blunkett.

    Then, during a statement on the recent floods, he pointed out just how great the current emergency planning system was - something introduced by the then home secretary, David Blunkett.

    Finally, during a statement by new education secretary Ed Balls, he praised the city academies programme which was first set out in a government green paper in the Spring of 2001 - by the then education secretary ....... fill in the name yourselves.


    I know Gordon Brown is determined not to let anybody know what he has planned in his legislative programme before he has told MPs, but surely he has told himself.

    Gordon Brown
    Mr Brown seems to have kept himself in the dark
    However, when pressed for details of his package on the Today programme, the prime minister declared: "I don't want to presume what I am going to say."

    Surely that is taking secrecy to ridiculous lengths. Mind you, it's a good trick if you can do it.

    It could come in very handy for politicians who would rather not know when they are doing things that perhaps they really shouldn't - they just don't tell themselves.

    1100 GMT, TUESDAY10 JULY

    It is common for MPs to set down motions praising local individuals for their efforts in raising money for charity - but this must be a first.

    Manjit Sing pulling aeroplane with his ears
    It may be for charity, but that has got to hurt
    Leicester's Keith Vaz has praised the heroic efforts of constituent Manjit Singh who raised £14,000 for the Manjit Fitness Academy charity campaign which aims to raise enough money to build a small sports and fitness school for poor children in Mahilpur, India.

    And how did he achieve this feat? By pulling a 7.4 tonne aeroplane across 12 feet of the East Midlands Airport - with his ears. Yes, his ears.

    So, you could say (although you may not wish to) that he "lugged" it across the tarmac.

    1300 GMT, TUESDAY 3 JULY

    Sometimes in politics, just like comedy, timing is everything.

    Quentin Davies
    Mr Davies has explained why he joined the Labour party
    So a Commons bill being launched by Labour's newest MP Quentin Davies is causing a few titters.

    Mr Davies, you probably don't remember, recently crossed the floor from the Tory benches (that's the polite parliamentary expression to describe what most former colleagues call a traitor) to join Gordon Brown's party.

    Now, he is attempting, with little chance of success, to introduce a law on pre-nuptial agreements.

    I wonder what sort of pre-nuptial agreement he had with Gordon Brown before he "crossed the floor".

    After all, the last Tory turncoat, Shaun Woodward, is now Northern Ireland Secretary, although he is not bothering to take a salary (being married to a Sainsbury heiress has its advantages you know).

    Meanwhile, to show just how loyal he is to his new master, Mr Davies has told the New Statesman website he had "in a sense agreed with New Labour since its inception", that included his time as a frontbencher under Iain Duncan Smith, of course.

    But then he goes on to spoil it all by suggesting that Labour's policies on things like public service reform, parent choice and city academies were all Tory ideas in the first place.

    "Of course the government have gone much further than these precursors did, and I am sure that under Gordon Brown they will go a great deal further still," he says to, presumably, universal agreement by his new colleagues on the Labour backbenches.

    To round it all off, Mr Davies adds: "There are probably only three Prime Ministers since the Second World War who have faced major physical threats to the country and to our people and territory, Churchill himself, Attlee (who helped to found NATO) and Thatcher (who retook the Falklands).

    "When it comes to the qualities needed to face a really major crisis Gordon Brown is in exactly that tradition."

    Yes you spotted it, two of the three were Tory leaders and Mr Davies fails to mention Tony Blair.

    How on earth did Mr Brown overlook him when he reshuffled the Cabinet?

    1000 GMT, TUESDAY 3 JULY

    There has been a long, unsuccessful campaign to create a crèche or other childcare facilities in the allegedly family-friendly House of Commons.

    Children's toys
    New bid for childcare facilities in Commons
    A number of MPs have, over the years, suggested the infamous old Annie's Bar - recently closed by the accountants - could provide an ideal site. That's unlikely as it resembles nothing more than a medieval dungeon.

    There were also previous suggestions that the old rifle range, where members of the MPs' shooting club practised their skills, could also be transformed for the purpose. (The range was said to have been in the cellar where Guy Fawkes placed his barrels of gunpowder. Maybe.).

    It has all come to nothing. But now former Labour minister Peter Kilfoyle is launching a fresh bid, hoping no doubt that the Gordon Brown government might see this as another sign of its newness.

    But what makes him think this effort stands any better chance of success than previous ones?

    Might it be that the leader of the Commons would have a powerful influence on the issue and that post is now held by Harriet Harman?

    Who led one of the earlier campaigns for a crèche.

    Commons Confidential: June 2007
    03 Jul 07 |  UK Politics
    Commons Confidential: May 2007
    04 Jun 07 |  UK Politics
    Commons Confidential: April 2007
    19 Apr 07 |  UK Politics
    Commons Confidential: March 2007
    17 Apr 07 |  UK Politics
    Commons Confidential: February 2007
    06 Mar 07 |  UK Politics
    Commons Confidential: January 2007
    05 Feb 07 |  UK Politics
    Commons Confidential: December 2006
    21 Dec 06 |  UK Politics
    Commons Confidential: November 2006
    04 Dec 06 |  UK Politics
    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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