Paul Routledge

The Sun may be setting on new Labour. The paper's editor, David Yelland, told journalism students at City University that he could see circumstances in which Murdoch's flagship paper would desert Tony Blair in the run-up to the general election. This sounds very similar to Rupe's comments ahead of the last election that he could contemplate the Sun ratting on the Tories, or, at least, backing Blair. Small wonder that Murdoch and his new Chinese bride were among the select guests for the Ken Hom dinner at Downing Street with President Jiang Zemin. Given the clampdown on anti-Beijing protesters, what fearfuI punishment would have been meted out to anti-Wapping demonstrators?

The spasm of relief that ran through Labour's back benches when Tony Blair made a halfway funny joke in his first Prime Minister's Questions after the recess was almost palpable. "Norway?" jibed the great helmsman, apparently in response to a seated interruption from the opposition. He chided them for wrongly identifying Norway as an EU member country. But since nobody could find the guilty Tory MP who shouted out the name, the parliamentary lobby sensibly presumed the jape was all a put-up job scripted by Alastair Campbell. The latest theory is that William Hague mumbled "No way!" and his Tyke pronunciation confused listeners. I am not convinced. This explanation would require Blair to pick up a one-liner on cue.

Those who know about these things, ie, the Prime Minister's fellow- travellers, say that Blair is rather going off the international dimension. Instead of staying to the bitter end at summits, he is keen to get back home and was not best pleased at having to bang around in Tampere to make sure Robin Cook and Jack Straw got things right. Perhaps it was the natural tedium of being in Finland. Then again, the view of Blair-watchers that he is wearying might be correct. Eighteen countries in 18 months to show off to the adoring multitudes might have something to do with it.

A new hatchetography of Derry Irvine by Dominic Egan has one or two entertaining cameos. My favourite is the Lord Chancellor's entrepreneurial past at Glasgow University, where he sold course notes on house conveyancing to fellow students. He made enough cash to buy a Messerschmitt bubble-car. How did this great bear of a man get in and out of the bloody thing? He did not progress towards a proper passion-wagon, because his business was nicked by even more enterprising students who sold bootleg photocopies of his notes on the black market. Another insight suggests that Irvine's boast to have written John Smith's undergraduate essays for him may not be on all fours with the truth.

Millbank has found a new enemy, or a variation on an old one. Steve Bates, new Labour's teenage broadcasting officer, has taken to hectoring BBC Online, which, with three million hits a day, is more popular than most papers. He lectured Nick Assinder, the programme's ex-tabloid political editor, about his penchant for picking up embarrassing stories, most recently on the government's gyrations over fox-hunting. "We may have to treat you as a newspaper," he sniffed. Well, lordy, lordy.

Now the intrepid holidaymakers are back, we are hearing of MPs' exploits during the long vac. Lawrence Cunliffe (Leigh, Scargill-Baiting Tendency) panicked at the sight of wild lions out for a night-time joyride in a Zambian game reserve. Presumably, this was all part of his Commonwealth parliamentary education, but he felt they were a bit too close. "Reverse! Reverse!" he demanded of their open-top truck driver. Meanwhile, Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley, Ex-Scargillite), added to the general chaos by calling "Here pussy!" to a particularly fierce lioness. They made it back to the Stranger's Bar in relatively good order.

The writer is chief political commentator for the "Mirror"

This article first appeared in the 01 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Interview - David Ramsbotham