Paul Routledge

Few sights are more pathetic, in the true sense of the word, than Tony Blair frantically riffling back and forth through his waffle book at Prime Minister's Questions. Head down, balding crown to camera, he searches for an answer, any answer, to put William Hague over a barrel. It does not often work. Now we learn that Blair's private secretary, Clare Sumner, is berating ministers for failing to spot "elephant traps" and providing "wrong and unusable material" for his weekly jousting match. Naturally, it has to be somebody else's fault.

I have news for the Prime Minister. The Tories have worked out that he is a slow thinker, and that he cannot move quickly from one idea to another. That's why Hague rolls up several questions - often at variance with each other - in a single wrap-up shot that leaves Blair floundering. Central Office aides cannot believe their luck that Downing Street has plainly not grasped this one. There is nothing in the waffle book to help the PM, and so he falls back on bluster.

Backbenchers prefer it that way. They like him to bash and bluster at the Tories. And anyway, they argue, nobody said it was Prime Minister's Answers.

The position of Clive Soley, the chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, looks increasingly untenable. He has infuriated everybody by suggesting that the parliamentary authorities should appoint MPs' staff and not the MPs themselves. The hunt is on for a successor. Commons veterans mischievously suggest that Frank Dobson should take the job if he remains on the back benches. "It needs someone with ministerial experience who can give the government a good kicking," said one MP. Other names emerging include Llin Golding, the widow of hard-man John Golding and daughter of Ness Edwards (MP and miners' leader), who would be the first woman chair; Gavin Strang, the former transport minister; Ann Clwyd; and Tony Wright, a former Foreign Office minister and now chairman of the trade union group of MPs. In this election, Frank's trump card is that he would not be No 10's nominee.

The thoughts of Chairman Charlie are to be published - in hardback, no less - this autumn to coincide with Charles Kennedy's first anniversary as leader of the Liberal Democrats. Portentously titled The Future of Politics, the tome will lay out the 21st century in some detail. Paddy Ashdown's diaries are also due out soon. But don't rush for them, either; Alan Clark they won't be. It is a safe bet that there will be nothing about the Special Boat Squadron, or his time with MI6, or the shagging. Especially the shagging.

By contrast, the former Labour MP Leo Abse promises, in Fellatio, Masochism, Politics and Love, an unusual account of the relationship between the Chancellor and the Prime Minister. The cover shows a Marilyn Monroe mouth doing interesting things with Big Ben.

Much amazement in the Westminster lobby that Andrew Marr, the peripatetic newspaper columnist, has got the top job of BBC political editor. Nobody can remember him ever breaking a big story. It was commonly assumed that he wouldn't get the job because his ears are too big to fit on the screen. I do hope Andy gets a contract as good as the BBC's former deputy political editor John Sergeant, who is now political number one at ITN. Sargy, say ITN insiders, has a four-day week and doesn't have to work in the parliamentary recesses. According to Murphy's Law, that is when the news usually happens.

Contrary to all previous speculation, Peter Mandelson now says he wants to stay in Hillsborough until the general election, being confident that he can win it from there. I do wish the undisgraced Northern Ireland Secretary would make up his mind. How can anybody take such a flittermouse seriously? Does he know that Duggie Alexander MP, Gordon Brown's teenage bag-carrier, has been foisted on Labour's election strategy committee? Not exactly a popular move. "I've got underwear older than him!" growled one party veteran.

The writer is chief political commentator for the Mirror

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