Paul Routledge

Fresh report from the battle front. No, not Kosovo, but the really nasty little war among the Liberal Democrats. Paddy Ashdown has let it be known that he will lay a kingly hand on the shoulder of the would-be MP he wishes to inherit his Yeovil seat. Unfortunately, he seems to have bestowed this favour on at least two candidates: Alan Leaman, his former strategist and now a lobbyist, and Jane Bonham-Carter, a scion of the political dynasty and his former press secretary.

Thoughts are also turning to the West Somerset question - what to do with Paddy when he steps down. Naturally, he will get a peerage. But he also wants a job, preferably one where he can play battleships. What prospect, then, of him following that other self-sanctified figure of the centre, Lord (David) Owen, as Nato's Balkan overlord?

I cannot remember which American wit said he knew Doris Day before she was a virgin, but I do hear surprising questions about Ann Widdecombe's intacta status. I am told that she enjoyed a very close friendship with a fellow Tory MP from the north of England, who lost his seat in the general election. Quite a few of those to choose from. I do hope this is one of those true rumours. Such a feisty lady deserves a bit of fun.

Who is that lunching discreetly and expensively with Charlie Whelan at the new Congress Club in Westminster? None other than Trevor Phillips, Mandy's pal and would-be mayor of London. It seems that Gordon Brown's former sidekick is going into the kingmaking business. "He is an old friend, and I'll help him all I can," confides Charlie primly. The two-bottle lunch lasted so long that, when they emerged, the hopeful future ruler of London found his car had been clamped.

Perhaps Charlie thinks he needs new friends. We shall soon be rivals. I am going on Talk Radio on Sunday mornings, head to head against Charlie's show on Radio 5. I replace poor Derek Draper, sacked for making an exotic phone call to the James Whale show from an estaminet in Amsterdam.

Sometimes, plain English shines through all the gobbledegook ("collateral damage", and so on) about the Balkan war. Briefing the lobby on the Kosovar refugees, the permanent secretary at the Department for International Development, John Vereker, said: "At present, I don't see our response constrained by financial considerations." Asked what this meant, a press aide offered helpfully: "We've got enough money at the moment." The mandarin observed icily: "That was a bad career move, Georgina."

Word reaches me that Peter Mandelson stayed at Chequers over the holiday, presumably acting as a human shield against potential Serb aggression. He's a keen swimmer, so that might explain why the pool is kept continually heated.

Meanwhile, across the road from Big Ben, the most hideous new building in London is taking shape. At a cost of £250 million, Portcullis House, designed to house a couple of hundred MPs, outdoes even the neo-barbaric Home Office in ugliness.

Nicknamed Titanic House after its fake ocean-liner chimneys, it will be the last word in hi-tech accommodation. The English oak tables and chairs alone will cost almost £15,000 per MP. Yet some are grumbling about being forced to move 20 yards. They like their present windowless shoe-boxes and are refusing to quit.

Perhaps they could be forcibly moved to another political building down the road. The establishment that previously occupied the site boasted courtyards, a governor, a chaplain, lots of people trying to get out and a Taskmaster's Tower overlooking them - all very like new Labour's Millbank Tower HQ now on the spot.

Only this was Millbank Prison, used originally for men awaiting transportation. How long before history repeats itself? I can just see the Recalcitrant Backbenchers (Miscellaneous Australian Provisions) Bill taking shape in Jack Straw's imagination.

The writer is chief political commentator for the "Mirror"

This article first appeared in the 19 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Prepare for a brave new world