Paul Routledge

Blackpool put on its best October sunshine for the Tories, but they hadn't much else to smile about. Vast tracts of the Winter Gardens, packed with trade stands in previous years, were turned into coffee shops. The bars were virtually empty much of the day. Tabloid editors, whose presence is a useful index of power, stayed away in droves. At new Labour's bash in Bournemouth, you couldn't get to the bar for them.

Peter Stothard, editor of the Times, however, was much in evidence. He somehow managed (it's not difficult) to earn himself an intemperate attack from Bruce "Brute" Anderson, political columnist for Another Magazine. Stotty responded admirably. "Bruce," he said, "I can understand why people dislike you. I can understand why people hate you. I can even understand why people want to hit you. But I am simply going to walk away." And did so.

Central Office panjandrums wanted to bar Charlie Whelan, Gordon Brown's ex-spin-doctor. Nick Wood, the party's chain-smoking head of information and a former Times political journalist, over-ruled them. The Mirror, however, changed the title of Whelan's column. During the Labour conference, it was "A Few Lines of Charlie". For the Tories, it became "A Few Lines of Charles". Was this out of deference to Tory susceptibilities on class A drugs?

The long-awaited biography of Alastair Campbell by Peter Oborne, the Wodehouseian political commentator, has proved something of a disappointment. The claim that Ali did not co-operate is unconvincing. How else did Oborne get the pics of Blair's press secretary as a child?

And why did those close to him give interviews? The book is unduly gushing, but inconsistent. Ali is a towering figure of authority, and also a crawler. Furthermore, it was noticeable that only the flattering bits got serialised in the Express, Oborne's paper. Lord Hollick, the proprietor, denies responsibility. Pardon, while I smile behind my hand.

The Campbell/Millars, as the happy couple are known, have not always held such flattering views about Tony and Cherie. When they first visited the Blairs in Islington, Ali's partner, Fiona Millar, was appalled by the naff, petit bourgeois decor. Apparently, the murals were not up to Pompeii standard.

Michael Ancram, the amiable Tory chairman, lists Wadworth's 6X as his favourite drink. And it is true that even as a minister in the Northern Ireland Office, he always found time to pop into Annie's Bar. Moreover, 6X is a very fine pint. But then I remember that Ancram's constituency (his third, a record) is Devizes, home of the brewery, which is probably the largest local employer, with many Tory voters.

One thing you will not read in John Major's mea non culpa memoirs is how he bottled out of reforming Prime Minister's Questions.

He raised with Downing Street officials the idea of switching from twice-weekly combat sessions of 15 minutes to one of 30 minutes. He also sounded out opposition opinion. But his nerve failed. Honest John panicked at the prospect of "dying" at the despatch box two minutes into PMQ, with half an hour of shame stretching ahead of him. So the proposal was quietly ditched.

However, Blair's people didn't miss this trick. They realised that the Tories would not dare oppose the change when new Labour came to office. Hence the present arrangements, which by common consent have sharply diminished the drama of parliament.

Applause for Ann Widdecombe's barnstorming performance at Blackpool was far from universal. "Did you manage to keep your breakfast down?" asked the London mayoral disappointee Steven Norris.

The writer is chief political commentator for the "Mirror" and the author of biographies of Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson

This article first appeared in the 11 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A world without children