John Prescott is up to his old shouting tricks, ringing Westminster hacks to deny that he has any intention of retiring at the next election, when he will be 67. That he should engage in such heavy oral combat, when he was supposed to be in charge of the country during Tony Blair's holiday in Egypt, is a measure of Old Irascible's wrath. "I wouldn't be much of a politician if I admitted it now," he thundered. Which makes his denials, well, less than credible.
Meanwhile, back in Basra, the Great Helmsman, in open-necked shirt and 1970s-style faded black jeans, entertained the troops. British squaddies grumbled that Blair did not even mention Christmas and the New Year, which they spent under stinking canvas while he lazed by the Red Sea.
David Triesman, who has quit the Labour general secretaryship with a peerage to become a £60,000 government whip in the Lords, boasts to a members' magazine of turning a major debt into a stable financial position. "When our financial results for 2003 are published I believe they will confound those who wrote us off," he says. Who can he mean?
Sir Patrick Cormack, Westminster's very own Malvolio, divulges his festive burst of gormandising in The House Magazine. On 1 December, he had dinner at Boodles with a friend "very exercised" about the European constitution. On the 3rd, he gave lunch to Maria Gonzalez, biographer of Raymond Carr, sometime warden of St Antony's College, Oxford, "where I am a senior member". Next day, he had breakfast with the French ambassador and attended a black-tie event at the Athenaeum. On the 5th, he presided over the Winston Churchill memorial dinner, and on the 6th he dined at the Savoy Grill - "a delightful indulgence". The 7th found him at lunch at the Ritz, "surely the most sumptuous dining room in London". On the 8th, he presided over the Machinery Users' Association lunch. The following day he had lunch with the Kuwaiti ambassador before dinner with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Breakfast with the Speaker's Chaplain came on the 10th and next day Christmas dinner for the Conservative Parliamentary Party, "which I arranged".
What heroic troughing! Twelve snouts in 11 days!
Surprisingly few NS readers could guess the dirty dozen MPs in my Christmas quiz. Ian McKillop, of Ilminster, Somerset, came nearest. He identified ten, and gets my £20 book token. He failed on the dubious back-bench war hero jailed for seven years for forgery, who was Peter Baker, and on the one-time MP who gave succour to Kim Philby, who was an Ulster Unionist, William Allen. Trebitsch Lincoln was the Christian missionary and German spy who met his death as a Buddhist lama. The paragon who hid in the bushes awaiting his Sloane Ranger was Dennis Skinner. The minister who "fell like Lucifer" in St James's Park was Ian Harvey. The lucky tyke who escaped without charge from the Poulson scandal was Albert Roberts. Harvey Proctor was the Tory who liked to spank his "pupils"; it was Piers Merchant's future that foundered on a park bench in the arms of a Soho club hostess. Chris Bryant posted a picture of himself in his knickers on a website. Ron Brown was caught in the Commons showers with his girlfriend. Ron Davies lost his political career "hunting badgers" by the M4, and Paul Marsden is the turncoat who bragged of an affair with a woman in the lobby.