Paul Routledge

In the old days of Fleet Street, when there was a plane crash or some other calamity, you went straight to work. So I wasn't surprised to be ordered into the office on day one of my holiday when Mandy's rehabilitation was announced. lt's dirty work, but somebody has to do it.

His return to the fold was not exactly a shock (it had been predicted in this very space) but it was still an unpleasant surprise. By all accounts, it is part of a Brown-Blair deal that takes Andrew Smith, who worked with the Chancellor in opposition, into the Treasury and the cabinet, thus going some way to restoring the political balance at the top. Not much of a gain, really.

Particularly when you bear in mind the departure of Frank Dobson, who finally caved in to pressure to seek the nomination as Labour candidate for London mayor. Tony Blair did not twist his arm. Of course not. He has other people to do that, such as Ann Keen, the sharp new Labour MP for Brentford and Isleworth, and Tony Banks.

An interesting test for Mandelson will be his attitude towards Radio 5 Live. Mandelson has told the popular news and sport channel that he will not appear on any show while it employs Charlie Whelan. That may have been airtight when he was no more than a disgraced former trade secretary, but now that he is the laird of Hillsborough he has certain responsibilities. Will he drop the ban? By the way, the BBC prohibition on talking about Mandy's exotic private life while on air is still in force.

Baroness Thatcher may have been too quick off the mark when she despatched a cheque for £100 to pay for diners who failed to turn up at the September Brasserie in Blackpool, leaving the table empty but unable to be used by anyone else. It may be still the best (perhaps, the only) restaurant in the resort, but on the last day of the conference there were more empty tables than full ones. As William Hague geared up for his speech, the shadow foreign secretary, John Maples, was pouring his heart out to Mary Ann Sieghart of the Times, while John Redwood was deep in conclave with the Mail on Sunday. The Financial Times was feeding Kenneth Clarke: it took two of them to keep up with his trenchermanship. What was I doing there? Lunching Jerry Hayes, the former Tory MP for Harlow who was so wet you could have drowned in him. Now he wants to join the old Labour Party. I told him it is full. We stopped taking new members in 1994.

In his conference rant, William Hague made much of the plight of Barbara Fitzjohn, a 78-year-old lady, proud of her country but afraid to go out after dark because she witnessed a mugging and no one stopped to help. Inquiries in Hall Green, Birmingham, where she lives, established that a Ms Fitzjohn was not too housebound to attend the Tory conference, and neighbours insist she still cheerfully drives out in her car in the evenings. Perhaps living opposite the Conservative Social Club makes her anxious about muggings.

The tide of books flows relentlessly from Westminster. Simon Walters, political editor of the Mail on Sunday, has written a Michael Dobbs-style political thriller, casting a new Labour woman minister in a menacing Francis Urquhart role. Walters is unusually shy about discussing his foray into fiction, while I can hardly shut up the columnist Andrew Marr, who is tearing through a squib about Blair's Britain - tied to a Channel 4 documentary, of course. This must be the most scribbled-about administration in history, though I do admit a share of the blame. Even now, the decision not to write a book about the PM is under review.

In the Lords' Bar, an unidentified hereditary peer was asked if he has yet written his 75-word life-extension application to Downing Street. "No," he gruffed. "I will be one of those ethnically cleansed by Tony Blair."

The writer is chief political commentator of the "Mirror"