Betty Boothroyd has yet to make an announcement about her future, but the horse-trading is already going on at Westminster. It was thought that when she turned 70 earlier this month, Madam Speaker would signal her readiness to step down. Or, rather, to step up to the Lords with the customary life peerage. But there has been only silence.
Now the Liberal Democrats are whispering their claims to the Speaker's chair, their candidate being the foreign affairs spokesman, Menzies Campbell. "Ming" has the necessary self-esteem in abundance, but most Labour backbenchers can't stand the sight of him. They accept that Labour's own Michael Martin is probably not the right man to follow Betty and many are ready to support the Tory Deputy Speaker, Sir Alan Haselhurst, a quiet-spoken fellow who writes sex-free books about peripatetic cricketers. Serve them all right if Boothroyd decides to stay on until the general election.
No sooner had Peter Mandelson, the rescued-from-disgrace Ulster Secretary, promised to devote every waking hour to solving the Irish question (or "save the country" as he put it with characteristic modesty on the Today programme) than he abandoned the field to pursue his favourite topic: Europe. He was prominent at the launch of Britain in Europe, while in the American ambassador's London residence the hapless ex-senator George Mitchell was doing Mandy's job for him. Incidentally, the censorship has already begun. Staff at the Belfast Telegraph have been instructed never to call the great man "Mandy". In print, at any rate. A further and better difficulty: Mandelson is now barred from Millbank, because a serving minister cannot engage publicly in party politicking.
And what of Oofy Wegg-Prosser, the leader's little helper's former little helper? He is bored silly at Pearson's and wants to get back into the fray. But he doesn't want to give up a £50,000 job to go back on Millbank wages, and Mandy shows no inclination to take him to the lucrative pastures of Hillsborough. A cruel, ungrateful business, politics.
T o the Gay Hussar for a memorial buffet supper to celebrate the life of Victor Sassy, the Hungarian restaurateur who did so much to improve the eating habits of the Labour Party. Amid the discreet new decor, photographs of Clement Attlee abound, though he probably never ate there (he would have called the wonderful Central European cuisine "foreign muck"), and of Nye Bevan, though he appeared rarely. The Bevanites made it their political canteen. Hearing that Roy Hattersley was at the head of the guest list, I turned up on the dot to ensure there would be some food left, but the happy eater didn't show. Fellow glutton Mark Seddon, editor of Tribune, confided that Mandy had offered to write a column on foreign affairs during his wilderness months. Not a line ever emerged.
On to the Grosvenor House hotel for a monster Foyle's lunch for John Major. I am seated next to Mike Fishwick, the former premier's publisher at HarperCollins. He published my first three books, and then Donald Macintyre's rival tome to mine on Mandelson. Fishwick says that Major is to write more books, now that his memoirs have proved a best-seller. Well, he should know. My snout in HarperCollins' Fulham HQ insists that Fishwick wrote much of the Major autobiography, after sending it back to him with orders to sex it up a bit. Still, Honest John's 774-page volume earned him an advance of at least £500,000, and some insiders quote double that figure. However, if it's so popular, why are bookshops already knocking a fiver off the cover price?
We know that the amply proportioned Nicholas Soames, the former Tory defence minister, needs a larger table than most of us. But why, when lunching with just one other (unidentifiable) person at that fine Westminster establishment Gran Paradiso the other day, did he insist that no other customers be admitted to his half of the restaurant?
The writer is chief political commentator for the "Mirror"