Paul Routledge

It's one thing to persuade your boss that he can walk on water, another to convince the voters, as Alastair Campbell found out when he took Tony Blair to the Eddisbury by-election. The great helmsman was very cross to find himself mobbed by shouting, fox-hunting Tory demonstrators. He is not a politician of the street. He prefers the (preferably soft-) focus group.

So he was not amused by his reception in Cheshire, which must have arisen from an injudicious leak of his visit. Alastair told him to go, but the occasion is unlikely to arise again. MPs are already giggling about the "Blair effect", a reverse form of the Midas touch. Flouting the precedent that forbids prime ministerial appearances at by-elections - for fear of being associated with failure - Blair has now made the same mistake twice, at Uxbridge and Eddisbury, both of which Labour lost. Next time, the Tories will be begging for him to go.

Still, we have the glossy annual report of the government's success. Alas, the presentation was marred by some excitable Tesco marketing. And then again by a Ms Jobsworth from the Department of Health who refused to give out copies to the Westminster lobby at the hyped-up launch in an east London hospital 20 minutes before the 9.30am deadline, on the grounds that it was going to MPs at that time. Perhaps she didn't know that the Commons doesn't sit on Mondays until 2.30pm. The BBC's John Sergeant was not amused, and his asperity increased when Comrade Campbell gave his copy to Channel 4 News, the Independent of the air: full of solemnity but lacking an audience. Strange that James Humphreys, of the Downing Street Strategic Communications Unit (yes, you may laugh), is so anxious to claim authorship of the document.

Westminster's killjoys have set their sights on Annie's Bar, the ostensible source of this column. In fact confidences exchanged there are governed by a code of omerta - which is why politicians feel free to talk to journalists. Perhaps no more.

When MPs come back from their summer break in late October, they will find the bar shut on Fridays. Some time later, it will be closed and turned into a convenience store for bread, milk, coffee ("and women's tights," spat out one Labour MP). The authorities say they are looking for a new site - the third in five years - but nothing has yet emerged.

John McWilliam MP, chairman of selection, collared the hapless chairman of the Commons Catering Committee, Dennis Turner MP, and marched him off to the littIe-used Lady MPs Retiring Room, a spacious, split-level suite that even has windows (unlike the present warren) and made territorial demands on behalf of Annie's regulars. I doubt if the ladies will yield an inch.

Naturally, traditionalist Labour backbenchers believe that the Blair regime wants to close down the only watering-hoIe in the palace where his writ most emphatically does not run and where the whips rarely venture.

Gordon Brown is upsetting those darlings of No 10, the provincial press. Invited as lunchtime guest by the grandly titled Newspaper Conference, made up of London editors and political correspondents (you should see them in action), the Chancellor insisted on speaking before the main course. To save time. His, of course. After wolfing down asparagus, 80 assembled journalists had to listen to his long speech on working families' tax credits before the salmon steaks were served. Worse still, the wine stopped flowing while Brown was on his feet.

In the latest edition of the AA members' magazine, Gordie is shown filling a car with liquid petroleum gas. If it looks stagey, like his famous News of the World picture with the lovely Sarah Macaulay, that's because it is. Brother Brown doesn't drive.

The writer is chief political commentator for the "Mirror".
Lynton Charles returns next week

This article first appeared in the 02 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, America says: never again!