The insider - Linda McDougall helps an MP in a spot of trouble
Reflections on a minister's tum, Darling looks back, and how an MP beat Commons security. By Linda M
Charles Clarke has been arm wrestling with backbenchers in stairwells and corridors to make sure the Higher Education Bill (top-up fees) gets through. By the time you read this, you will know whether his tactics worked. What remains certain is that, in a government whose stated aims include healthy eating and weight reduction for all, the Clarke Corporation is a thing of wonder. Chunkier than John Prescott and cuddlier than Gordon Brown, he presents a cheerful sight on the first floor of Portcullis House, chatting on his mobile phone with his tummy pressed against the window that overlooks the afternoon tea and coffee drinkers.
Alistair Darling spent his first 15 months as Transport Secretary arguing that the basic structure of the railways should be left alone. Now those with an inside track tell me that Darling has begun to think the unthinkable. By the time he announced the rail review in January, the Secretary of State had realised that the system just wasn't working and that changes would have to be substantial. So what can we expect when the report comes out in July? Vertical integration. And what's that? Well, something like a return to the old structure of British Rail.
Members of Parliament are paid an "additional costs allowance" of up to £20,000 a year. This reimburses the costs of staying away from their main home while they do their parliamentary duties.
An MP can choose which home is his main residence. If he nominates his house in the constituency, then he can use the additional costs allowance to pay for his accommodation and living expenses in London. Or vice versa. This can include interest on a mortgage, utility bills, replacement furnishings, food and so on.
Later this year, all members' spending has to be published in detail. Sir Philip Mawer, who investigated Commons sleaze following Betsygate, has pointed out that there are at present no checks on how much time MPs spend in second homes purchased with the aid of public money. He warns that if usage were to fall consistently below a certain level, then it would no longer represent value for money. And he suggests, quite firmly, that the Advisory Panel on Members' Allowances should be invited to consider whether additional controls are needed in this area.
Expect an Easter rush of travel to the constituencies, and summer family holidays in the London flat.
Security at Westminster has been tightened since Greenpeace activists scaled Big Ben a few weeks ago. When I arrived at the car-park entrance on Monday, my way was blocked by a blue Jaguar. Slumped miserably behind the wheel was the MP for Medway, Bob Marshall-Andrews QC. He had left his swipe card at home and as a punishment, the security staff were ignoring his pleas to be allowed through the barrier.
When he saw me, Bob cheered up and edged his car out of the queue. "Tell you what," he said out of the corner of his mouth. "You swipe your card and then when the barrier goes up, just chuck your pass out of your passenger window and I'll pick it up and use it again."
I did, and it worked a treat.