The Insider - Paul Routledge on why Jack Straw is brassed off

A brassed-off Foreign Sec, the riddle of the Sunderland Empire and a missing cartoon

Jack Straw is not a happy man. His role as Foreign Secretary has largely been usurped by Tony Blair, and Geoff "Buff" Hoon fancies the job may be his after the next cabinet reshuffle, even though he has made a hash of the Afghan war. The Hoon problem has always been with us. In the first term, Buff was to have been foisted on the Treasury, but Gordon Brown rejected him out of hand.

Meanwhile, when the talks with Spain over Gibraltar collapse, MPs expect Straw's minister of state, Peter Hain, to do his usual Houdini act, leaving Jack to carry the can. Small wonder that the brassed-off Straw recently diverted his RAF plane back from Gib to Brize Norton, near his Oxfordshire cottage, leaving the media to find their own way home from the middle of nowhere.

The Westminster lobby belles are very pleased with themselves over Steve Byers's euro-referendum "gaffe" in Shepherd's Restaurant - even though the story was broken by the political editor of the Press Association, who is a man. The sisterhood, a 25-strong militia with lethal glamour-power, next feast on Blair over drinks in No 10. If the men organised such a hit squad, it would be condemned as sexist.

Brussels bureaucrats have chosen a shortlist of candidates to succeed Geoffrey Martin as head of the EU office in London at £100,000-plus. It is made up of Carol Tongue, an MEP until defenestrated by Labour's shady list-system for Euro-elections; Brian Walker, ex-BBC political editor in Northern Ireland, now with the Belfast Telegraph; and Jim Dougal, Mr EU in Belfast. My money is on Tongue, who plays the cello, the piano, squash and tennis, and loves horses.

My touching disclosure that Fraser Kemp, government whip to the Culture Department, has never been to the theatre brought forth offers to remedy this omission. Victoria Todd, director of the National Campaign for the Arts, has invited him to the English National Opera to see Lulu. Though he was under the impression (as was your columnist) that Lulu is a diminutive Scottish female vocalist, he will be taking advantage of this kind overture in due course. Yet my spies insist that Kemp, at age 12, was taken to the Sunderland Empire (on whose stage Sid James quite literally died) to see Twelfth Night. Obviously, he wasn't paying much attention.

A magnificent exhibition of political cartoons at Westminster Hall includes an updated version of Low's wartime All Behind You, Winston by Steve Bell. Entitled All Behind You, Tony, it was published in the Guardian the day after the 1997 general election. Shaun Woodward, the turncoat Labour MP, has the original, but requests for it to be loaned for the exhibition fell on stony ground. Bell had to draw the thing again.

Not everybody is fooled by Richard "Dirty" Desmond, proprietor of the Daily Express and numerous porn titles. He gave £5,000 to the Tories, but when it was suggested that he meet William Hague, the party chairman, Michael Ancram, blocked the meeting. On grounds of taste, one supposes.

There will now be a two-week break in transmission of this column while I seek refuge from the World Cup in Bukhara. On my return, if Darrell Barnes (Letters, 13 May) gets in touch, I will attempt to restore his faith in my disrepute.

Paul Routledge is chief political commentator for the Mirror

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