The insider - Kevin Maguire attends the Gateshead games

War in Bishop Auckland, "forward, not black" with Labour, and a commoner exposed

The scrap to be Tony Blair's parliamentary neighbour is shaping up to be a classic. The Downing Street special adviser Liz Lloyd has suddenly decided she wants to be an MP and found Bishop Auckland on the map, visiting the County Durham seat as the sitting MP, Derek Foster, announced his retirement. But she faces the formidable obstacle of "Mo" O'Toole, aka the former Mrs Alan Milburn. She also has her eye on Bishop Auckland after losing her European seat last June.

Milburn, Labour's general election co-ordinator, may be none too chuffed by her candidacy. Friends remember an acrimonious split, particularly the night when he invited mates round to watch the footie, only to discover that O'Toole had taken custody of the TV.

The tearoom talk is of Dr John Reid's prickly bedside manner. The one-time demon drinker-turned-healthy Health Secretary accuses Nick "Newcastle" Brown, the ex-chief whip, of trying to embarrass him by tabling questions on alcoholism. Brown insists his interest is motivated by the death of his agent, who went to the great brewer in the sky after succumbing to the hard stuff. Perhaps Reid would like to take proxy revenge by stabbing his fork into the meat at the Magnolia Bank, a fine North Shields pub. The hostelry serves the progeny of Nick Brown as a steak, a local farmer having named his Aberdeen Angus bull in honour of the thick-necked former agriculture minister. He bought the animal with his £10,000 compensation from the foot-and-mouth epidemic.

Even in homogeneous north-east England, Labour did well to find a virtually all-white cast to use as props behind Tony Blair at its spring conference in Newcastle, Gateshead. Of 30 diehards ushered on to the stage, a Sikh was the only visible ethnic minority: one more than in Leeds/Bradford, where an all-white cast greeted a whistle-stop landing in the multicultural conurbation to promote an immigration clampdown. One party supporter wondered whether the party will change its campaign slogan to "Forward, not black".

What had happened to John Prescott, delegates wondered, when he used the gender-inclusive "spokespersons" to refer to Tories who were previously called "spokesmen", whether allowed above or below deck? Fears were swiftly allayed when Prescott pressed the default button and proposed an "order of motherhood" for Ruth Kelly, Education Secretary and mother-of-four.

Finest battle of the weekend was a three-cornered contest between the Labour hierarchy and those fiercely competitive political editors, Andrew Marr of the BBC and ITN's Nick Robinson. Invited to cover separate legs of Blair's helicopter tour of Britain, each insisted he must be on the final flight to Gateshead. With the chopper blades whirring, officials relented and took both. Alexandre Dumas would recognise a case of one for one, one for all.

The nicely brought-up health minister Rosie Winterton, MP for working-class Doncaster Central, soon got her revenge on a Unison executive who argued that the government was screwing up the NHS. In the bar later, Winterton beckoned the woman over to meet someone. "This man said there are no common people in Labour any more," she said, "so I wanted him to meet you."

Kevin Maguire is associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

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