The insider - Paul Routledge on knives out for Labour's chairman

Knives out for Labour's chairman, Straw runs hard and more on those 45 minutes

Amid the debacle of Labour's divorce from the RMT rail union, questions are being asked. How can the party hierarchy take seriously anyone who, like the RMT general secretary, Bob Crow, wears a baseball cap? More pertinently, how much has the abrasive style of Labour's cabinet-ranking chairman, Ian McCartney, contributed to the mess? One fellow Scots MP calls him "a bit of a nebbie" - tartan-speak for an aggressive wee fellow. In yer face, or, in his case, in yer waist.

With similar rumblings in the Fire Brigades Union and Communication Workers Union, it is being suggested that McCartney ought to be replaced. But by whom? Blair has exhausted the list of hard men (John Reid, Charles Clarke), and they did not exactly excel in the job. Some backbenchers want a more emollient figure, who will stroke the unions in the general election run-up.

Spotted in the Quirinale restaurant, hard by Smith Square: the chief whip, Hilary Armstrong, consulting her watch with increasing rage. Finally, she walked out, snapping: "Nick Robinson! That's the last time he stands me up!" Oh dear. The former Young-Conservative-turned-ITN-political-editor has yet to learn the ways of Westminster.

In an unwonted fit of generosity, the Labour whips' office has offered two of the tuition-fees rebels places on the committee taking the Higher Education Funding Bill. Anne Campbell, the fair maid of Cambridge, accepted. George Mudie, second in command of the plotters, said he was "too busy". Urgent Treasury select committee business in Amsterdam evidently had a prior claim. But bombarded by calls from friends and the media, Mudie was shamed into taking up his place.

I hear that Jack Straw is one of the most assiduous attenders at the Commons gym, and that his display on the running machine is frighteningly aggressive. "You'd think he was running for the leadership," observed a less athletic MP.

"Buff" Hoon's claim that he did not know about last autumn's lurid headlines sits uneasily with the fact that No 10, presumably in conjunction with the MoD, tipped off evening papers about the "45-minute" claim several hours before publication of the September dossier. Although lobby rules prevent the hacks from revealing the source, no such consideration inhibits me. I can reveal that the No 10 spinner Godric Smith was responsible. No wonder Jonathan Powell asked what the headline in the London Evening Standard would be. It was gratifyingly close to the No 10 advance line, complete with pix of ballistic missiles.

Commons staff have been warned, in a memo from the head of personnel, that they could face "disciplinary proceedings" (not just a court fine) for using "a work-issued mobile phone" while driving. But why do they get mobile phones at all when these are forbidden in large tracts of Westminster?

Paul Routledge is chief political commentator for the Daily Mirror

Next Article