The insider - Paul Routledge outs the Commons nose-picker

The demise of the lobby, a lost MP, and some restive fingers on the Tory benches

The Prime Minister botched the job of abolishing the ancient, corrupt parliamentary lobby system. While Alastair Campbell laid his secret plans to stiff the body he once so assiduously exploited, Tony Blair was briefing "senior" political journalists over the Chequers dining table. At least one told his office what was afoot, and the story was about to break prematurely. So Ali C called in "a broad cross-section" (that is to say, the trusties) of the lobby to inform them of their outfit's imminent de facto demise. They have little option but to co-operate. The morning session will now be open to every Tom, Dick and Harry, including your columnist.

Old hands relish the prospect of theatricals, particularly when ministers are wheeled out. "Wait until Tessa Jowell comes to announce an extension for the National Gallery, on a day that a fellow minister is discovered in a Ron Davies situation at the trouser end of Clapham Common," one veteran said gleefully.

A footnote to the Saint Barbara Castle saga in the obits. A contemporary at Bradford Girls' Grammar School recalls: "She was known among us girls as Bossy Barbara Betts." Bossy Betts stood as the Labour candidate in a mock election, and lost her deposit.

You might think that Anthony Steen, having been an MP for roughly 28 years, would know where the Foreign Office is. You would be wrong. The bicycling, anti-smoking Tory stopped a member of the lobby in Whitehall to ask the way, and was told he was standing outside the building he sought. Makes you wonder how he became a law lecturer and "an adviser to the federal and provincial Canadian governments".

Tony Blair might usefully bone up on his knowledge of track-and-field events before the Commonwealth Games he is expected to attend in Manchester. A look of puzzlement came over his face when he was invited to name his favourite event; he then volunteered "those running things".

The editor of another journal (as the Telegraph used to say) is not ashamed of falling asleep in the Commons since he was elected Tory MP for Henley. But Comrade Boris Johnson should know that Hansard reporters can see his vigorous nose-picking on the Tory benches. And it is no good putting an order paper above his face when locating a particularly recherche stogie somewhere behind his left eye. They can see over the top.

Jonathan Baume, general secretary of the First Division Association, tells me that MI6 bosses are divided about the wisdom of allowing trade union representation to spooks. Hardliners want nothing of it, but managers who realise this is the 21st century cannot understand what the fuss is about. And what about MI5, which spent millions of taxpayers' money spying on the unions? It is watching nervously from the wings.

At my Church of England primary school, I was once singled out for a charity ticket to the ballet at the Grand Theatre, Leeds. Delibes's Coppelia was in performance, and not even the shame of being a nine-year-old guest of the Girl Guides could spoil the wonder. Is there a similarly charitable group out there to take Fraser Kemp, government whip at the department for culture, on his very first trip to the theatre?

Paul Routledge is chief political commentator for the Mirror

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