Paul Routledge

lain Duncan Smith was still working on his "I care about the vulnerable" speech at Harrogate up to the last minute. He had been evacuated from the conference hotel at midnight because of a faulty fire alarm.The shadow cabinet milled about in various stages of undress, with Ollie Letwin taking the Oscar for Most Traditional Garb: long overcoat over public-school-issue, blue-and-white-striped pyjamas. IDS complained to Brendan Carlin (Yorkshire Post) that "we live in a modern society; everyone's got to know the inside of your underpants". Shades of John Major. But the Tory leader decamped from the hotel in an immaculate blue suit, with no Y-fronts showing.

The smart money is going on buxom Daisy Sampson, ex-Independent and spin-doctor for the Liberal Democrats, to be appointed Radio 5 Live's first political correspondent. Eat your heart out, old Etonian James Landale (Times) and Andy Porter (Sunday Business).

A pre-recess show of members' art in the House brings out the worst. Michael Spicer (a brigadier's son, don't you know) exhibits a pretentious oil painting entitled Red Box sur l'Herbe, which features a ministerial box on a lawn against a backdrop of deckchairs and an unidentified woman with a straw hat covering most of her face. Forget the political trappings; who is the lady? Nick Lyell displays his doodles and rhymes written on order papers during debates. Sample, during the debate on standards and privileges, November 1995:

Old Tam
He moans
Like hell
But does it well
He questions
Carps at
Sharp practice
Digs and delves
Discovers elves
But sometimes gold
As well

Sir Bernard Ingham plans to re-enter the political fray with a new book on spin-doctors. Meantime, Nick Jones, political correspondent of the BBC, is reissuing his Control Freaks with added Jo Moore. By all accounts, he has detected a link with the Bernie Ecclestone affair.

Rich though it was that the Guardian was conned about the "palatial" offices given to Sinn Fein MPs at Westminster, the truth is even more entertaining. Martin McGuinness (Armalite, South) is quartered in the shoebox formerly occupied by the late Jamie Cann, Labour MP for Ipswich. Cann, an ex-member of the defence select committee, loathed the Shinners. And there is little point bugging McGuinness's phone; his voice is clearly audible through the thin walls.

Some MPs plainly think I am still writing the biography of Peter Mandelson, so frequently do they come up with fresh gems. The latest concerns Mandy's appointment to the whips' office in the mid-1990s. Don (now Lord) Dixon, then deputy chief whip, first learnt of it from the newspapers, and tore into the leader's office to confront Blair. "I'm not having that c*** in my office," he thundered. Dixon feared that the secrets of the whips' black book might unaccountably begin appearing in the Sunday tabloids if "Bobby" had access to the files.

Further intelligence from the file on the late Sir Ray Powell MP who, as accommodation whip, had life-or-death powers over backbenchers' offices. After winning Chesterfield in 1984, Tony Benn (who had lost at Bristol in the 1983 election) returned to the Commons in commendably humble mode, asking only to be quartered with the helots in the dungeons. But Benn later asked for quarters more fitting to his seniority, pointing out to Powell that he had entered the House in 1950. His letter was returned. Scrawled at the bottom was the bleak message: "Break of service - does not qualify."

Paul Routledge is chief political commentator for the Mirror

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