Paul Routledge

For devotees of Westminster gossip, the really interesting thing about Ir'n Broon's third Budget was the advance spin put on it by Tony Blair's people. They primed a couple of the posh Sundays to write that the new Labour premier had slapped down his old-fashioned socialist Chancellor, forcing him to backtrack on plans to scrap the married couples' tax allowance. Such a move would send the wrong signals to Middle England, etc, etc.

In fact, the No 10 briefers suspected of leaking this choice gobbet of anti-Brown propaganda didn't know what was in the Budget, so the story fell flat on its face, along with the reputation of the lobby correspondents who wrote it. The married couples' allowance is being scrapped, as the Chancellor intended all along.

It is a pity the political correspondents do not have an annual award for the biggest lulu of the year, on the lines of the industrial correspondents' Golden Bollock. I won it once for getting a miners' strike ballot wrong, knocking four cents off the pound in the process. But the fragile egos in the political lobby could never cope with such ruinous mockery.

New Labour's troops are getting restless. And not surprising. On a number of recent occasions in the division lobby, Tommy McAvoy, the Whips' Office answer to Draco, tipped ministers the wink that they could go home early, while backbenchers were told to stay in the Commons - in case there was a Tebbit-style ambush on Labour's fragile majority, I suppose. MPs are grumbling that ministers should take their turn as division-fodder. Isn't that why they are called the payroll vote?

It's not as if the old scam of pairing works any more. When the government outnumbers the opposition by three to one, how can anyone get a Tory pair? And pity John McWilliam, the veteran Labour MP for Blaydon and grandee of the Commons committee system, who was paired with Peter Temple-Morris, Conservative member for Leominster. Or so he thought. "I didn't think he would do anything so stupid as to join the Labour Party," murmurs McWilliam ruefully.

The other day I bumped into Lord Tebbit, patrolling the corridors of Westminster. Apart from looking a little gaunt, the old monster has lost none of his menace. He is still grumbling about John Major's approval of the Jopling reforms of Commons procedures, which diminished the opposition's ability to wear down a government. This lot, he clearly believes, could be worn down in a fortnight of all-night sittings.

Spiny Norman has a message for his leader: "Sack 25 of the rebel MPs" - including any who actively campaign for Europhile candidates in the Strasbourg parliamentary elections in June. "That'll teach them." It most certainly would. When I ventured that the rebels might join the Lib Dems, or set up their own party, or even join new Labour, a steely glint of pleasure came into his eye.

Quote of the week from Peter Mandelson, approached by a political correspondent in the Members' Lobby: "I'm sorry. I don't talk to journalists." If you believe that . . .

The disgraced former minister now sits on the back benches at the far end of the chamber from Tony Blair, close to a small door into the division lobby through which he shimmies at the close of Prime Minister's Questions. In this spot, he is invisible to the public gallery above him.

Meanwhile, his quondam assistant, Oofy Wegg-Prosser, who holds his farewell party at the Titanic restaurant next week, has been told by civil servants to wait until the end of the month before taking up his post as political guru at the Sun.

So why do I see him in the Commons press gallery bar, talking to Trevor Kavanagh, the paper's Eurobarmy political editor? Perhaps they are discussing the single currency, on which they have diametrically opposed views.

The writer is chief political commentator for the "Mirror". His biography of Peter Mandelson is available from the "NS" at the special price of £16.99 (inc p&p); his "Gordon Brown" at £12.99; or £25 for both. Ring 0800 7318496

This article first appeared in the 12 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Yanks go home . . . but not just yet