Paul Routledge

MPs keep looking for signs of tension in Tony Blair, and some are now convinced that he is feeling the strain. At a hitherto-undisclosed meeting in his room in the Commons, the great helmsman was not at his most self-assured. The gathering was called to canvass support among backbenchers for Frank Dobson's bid to become mayor of London.

Around 40 attended, across the spectrum from Clive Soley to Mike Gapes, Tony Banks and Piara Khabra. They all pledged backing for Tony's candidate. "He seemed terribly nervous," relates one loyalist who was present. "This wasn't the bullish Prime Minister we have come to expect." Some put his edginess down his being neck-deep in internal party politics, where he is least comfortable. "It was almost like Tony Blair taking off Rory Bremner, rather than the other way round," remarks my snout.

Why Blair should be so nervous is a mystery, because things are not going well for the non-Downing Street candidates for the London mayoralty. Jim Fitzpatrick MP (aka Fixpatrick), the ex-Trot leader of the London party, will be cheered to learn that unofficial returns from the heartlands show Ken Livingstone slipping against Frank Dobson.

And Glenda Jackson (who gets my vote) flopped at a dinner-do for the faithful in east London. One of those present said: "She came in with five votes and left with none. Too cold." The black icon MP Bernie Grant is on-side with the Dobbo project, discreetly telling people that Ken's anti-racist credentials are not all they're cracked up to be. Meanwhile, Southwark is asking for donations to a £3,000 fund for the mayoralty election. Where's the candidate, though?

Still, the campaign keeps the Archer stories coming thick and fast. A senior Labour MP tells me how his first love at Oxford was mistreated by the millionaire liar. The drop-dead gorgeous blonde, aged 22 and in her first job in the publishing trade, was sent round to Jeffrey's penthouse with the proof of his latest book. Scarcely looking up, he said: "Just go into the bedroom and take your clothes off." She sat rigid, book clutched to her chest, and protested: "I'm from your publisher!" Ever the gallant, Archer trilled: "Sorree! Wrong girl!"

More news from the entrepreneurial front. The US ambassador Phil Lader recently hosted a talk-in on the virtues of venture capitalism at the DTI headquarters in Victoria Street. Chancellor Ir'n Broon gave a welcoming address to the hundreds of businessmen, but his enthusiasm was easily outdone by the laddish Trade Secretary "Steve" Byers, whose salivating remarks sent Labour MPs scurrying for their sick bags. Even so, Byers shares are being marked up.

In his characteristically pugnacious autobiography, Paying the Price, Lord (Roy) Mason, scourge of the Labour left and the IRA in about equal measure, records how Michael Meacher once rushed excitedly into a Chinese hotel breakfast room. "I've discovered a new fruit!" he told fellow MPs on a parliamentary trip, placing three pomegranates on the table. Mason gently explained that for years they had been a treat for working-class children. Meacher was "quite disappointed". Still, at least he didn't ruin the trip. Joel Barnett (Labour) and Robert Sheldon (Tory) did that, by loftily dismissing the Great Wall as "a pile of stones". This so enraged Chou En-Lai that he cancelled an audience and the group of MPs flew home early in disgrace.

How credible was a pre-election attempt to portray the great helmsman as Sedgefield superstud? The People carried a halfway serious story about Blair being so well-hung that he was known as "Dobbin" to intimates. This is the kind of free publicity that no spin-doctor ever gainsays, so Alastair Campbell never denied it.

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

This article first appeared in the 06 December 1999 issue of the New Statesman, My night with Mad Frankie Fraser