Paul Routledge

Of course he wants him back. Tony Blair cannot wait to restore his little helper Peter Mandelson to the cabinet. Unfortunately, he is meeting resistance from the rest of his cardinals who were glad to see the back of him.

The plan was to bring Mo Mowlam back home to take over from Lord Robertson at the MoD: exciting, ground-breaking, first woman defence secretary, etc. Mandy could then be slotted in at Stormont to take charge of the ailing peace process. All this on the back of a few stints as a Weekend World television researcher in Belfast.

Alas, like Ulster, Dr Mo still says "No", and Blair lacks the nerve to sack her. Jack "Go Anywhere" Cunningham is being punted as an alternative. But wait! From inside the MoD come high-level political murmurs that Michael Portillo's self-outing might just ease Mandelson into that coveted flak-jacket.

The price of fame. On a recent late-running flight from Brussels to Strasbourg, the chief steward asked "Messrs Prodi, Patten and Byrne [the new Irish Commissioner]" to identify themselves to a member of the flight crew. Nobody knew what they looked like.

It was straight out of Robert Harris. Melita and her spy pals had been obsessing Fleet Street. Yet none of the journalists playing in the annual cricket match against the TUC general council the other week noticed a quiet, iron-grey figure sipping red wine in the Unity Bank hospitality tent.

Igor Klimov, expelled in 1972 by Edward Heath for conduct inappropriate to his role as Soviet labour attache (in other words, the Foreign Office thought he was a KGB agent), was back as fraternal delegate from the Russian trade unions. Not even the man from the Daily Mail (who once asked Michael Costello, the Morning Star's legendary industrial correspondent, " 'Ere, Mick, why is there nobody under the rank of colonel in the KGB?") spotted him.

No wonder MI5 washed their hands of us hacks.

The more that Millbank denies it, the more some MPs fear they will be deemed "unsound" and ripe for de-selection. Expectations of a Great Terror are unfounded, but some will fall by the wayside. I hear that Ed Balls, the Chancellor's economics adviser, is being lined up to displace rebellious Alice Mahon in Halifax, reasonably proximitous to his high-flying wife, Yvette Cooper in Castleford.

This would certainly help with the baby-sitting, though Ed should be warned that Alice will fight house-by-house to keep her constituency. "I was thinking of going," she tells friends. "But not now."

And why is the Strangers' Bar awash with rumours that Barbara Follett is thinking of quitting her seat at Stevenage at the end of this parliament? She is said to have told Margaret McDonagh, party general secretary, of her intentions. True, ministerial preference has not come her way, but Tony doesn't have so many millionaire supporters that he can let Ken's wife step out of public life.

He won't do that again in a hurry. Derek Draper pretended to be your columnist at the European Commission drinks party in Bournemouth, and an irate rich bitch took off his glasses and threatened to stamp on them. Tch, Dolly, tch.

The abolition of the Labour Party conference as we know it has finally roused the awkward squad into action. Old Testament prophets, aka the MPs Bob Marshall-Andrews, Austin Mitchell and Ian Gibson, are working on a plan to stage a rival "alternative" conference in Brighton next year. Delegates will be invited to debate a policy motion without fear of upsetting the great helmsman. Points of order, heckling, references back and amendments will all be accepted - indeed will be obligatory. Naturally the platform will be defeated, necessitating a showy walk-off. Bliss! Hand me my rule book, comrade.

The writer is chief political correspondent for the "Mirror" and the author of biographies of Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson

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