The insider - Paul Routledge on how Tories might help the PM

How Tories may help Blair, Galloway's battle with Spiderman, and lunch with Lord Archer

The heat is on at Westminster in the run-up to the crucial vote on top-up fees. Party managers and their minions have been exceptionally busy, threatening potential rebels such as Linda Perham, MP for Ilford North, with withdrawal of the Labour whip, and promising to "have the balls" of another backbencher. But up to ten Conservatives are planning to defy Michael Howard and vote for the government. So Tony Blair could stay in power with Conservative support.

The Channel 4 political awards season is upon us again and Blair is in line to win two of the five categories. He is shortlisted as "the politician's politician - for outstanding political achievement in 2003" and for "the most influential person in British politics in 2003". He is up against Robin Cook, the low-paid Independent columnist, in both lists, and against Michael Howard in the first. Absurdly, George Galloway figures in the second, but then so do Dave Chick "Spiderman" and the late Dr David Kelly. Ann "Hasn't Got A" Clwyd, Blair's Iraq patsy, features in the campaigning politician category. The star-struck new dad John Bercow is battling it out with Menzies Campbell and Eric Forth for opposition politician of the year, while Baroness Scotland could be the first black Peer of the Year.

Michael Howard has ordered his whips to crack down on lazy Tory MPs who cannot be bothered to vote. Their sloth causes the opposition to punch well below its weight. Not even the most mighty grandees - including former members of the shadow cabinet - are exempted. The shooting season is reported to be suffering hugely. Meanwhile, Peter Lilley, the former wannabe leader, was spotted lunching with soon-not-to-be Lord Archer. Perhaps this explains Lilley's rage during a Commons debate when Steve McCabe, PPS to Charles Clarke, strayed on to the topic of Tory sleaze.

The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, has interested himself in the regular leaking of classified Cabinet Office papers to the Sunday Times, for which money is reported to change hands. The security services are on the case. It is a criminal offence to suborn a civil servant.

George Pascoe-Watson, political editor-in-waiting of the Sun, is cruising to victory in the non-election for chairman of the parliamentary lobby. His is the only name put forward - despite unhappiness in some quarters that ole Black Leather Trousers, who declined an offer to edit the Sun in Scotland, might be too close to Downing Street. This is a calumny too far, as they would not say on his paper's back bench. As he takes over, a report is expected to recommend live televising of Downing Street lobby briefings. Old hands predict this will lend more clout to the spin-doctors while further inflating the egos of Andrew, Adam, Jon and all the other telly personalities invariably singled out by Blair in his press conferences.

Further intelligence from Basra, where the Great Helmsman met the troops. Hacks on the trip were obliged to wear bulky Kevlar flak jackets, but Blair donned his only while riding in the military helicopter. For the cameras, he wore a bulletproof vest, which made him walk like John Wayne. No 10's touring spinner, Tom Kelly, assured journalists there had been no hostile fire in the area since August. Yet Blair was filmed on a balcony overlooking the Shatt al Arab against a backdrop of AK-47 and heavy machine-gun fire. The shooting was inaudible because the PM was holding a crude hand-mike.

Paul Routledge is chief political commentator for the Daily Mirror

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