Paul Routledge

It's all very well for Tony Blair to keep the punters guessing about whether he will take his statutory paternity leave, but everybody at Westminster knows what will happen. He will have his cake and eat it - as usual. That is to say, he will announce to an expectant world that he is taking time off, while continuing to run the show by mobile phone. A perfect new Labour compromise, ie, one that gives him what he wants.

This is precisely the kind of behaviour that I hear is building up trouble in the middle ministerial ranks. At the dinner table outside the metropolis, ministers are free with their condemnation of the Great Leader, predicting a political catastrophe in six months, which Blair will blame on Gordon Brown. "It's all going to end in tears," is the ministerial prophesy. Yes. But whose tears?

Those pitiless creatures in Annie's Bar have set up a sweep on what Cherie's baby will be called. The smart money is on Alexander, or Alexandra. Well, it was smart until I wrote this paragraph.

The word from Belfast is that the love affair between the undisgraced Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson and the Ulster Unionists is over. That didn't take long. They are incensed with his casual attitude towards the soldiery and his strange attachment to the Patten reforms of the RUC. In thinking Unionist circles (if that is not straining conceptualism too far), he is given two months before Blair retakes personal charge. This places a question-mark over Mandy's ambitions. If he is seen to fail in Northern Ireland, he can scarcely be granted his dearest wish - to supplant Robin Cook at the Foreign Office.

Not that Throbbin' Robin's people will allow it anyway. Against its better judgement, the FO is determined to make the Cook experiment work. So much so that the deputy head of the news (press) department, the ex-Mirror man John Williams, was despatched to Delhi for three days on a secret de-gaffing mission designed to iron out any potential faux pas that the Foreign Secretary might make when he goes to India in April. With Pakistan down the dictatorship drain, Cookie has to swing pro-India. So nobody wants a repetition of the diplomatic furore caused the last time he went to see the Taj Mahal, when he blundered into the sensitive area of Kashmir. He even managed to upset the Queen, who was with him. Or he with her.

It looks like a score draw in the briefing war between No 10 and the Treasury. Alastair Campbell's seditious admission to the parliamentary lobby that tax has gone up under Labour mightily upset the Chancellor and his boys, who have been denying it until they are red in the face. But the spinning of the Budget has gone Brown's way, and the Blairistas are licking their wounds over the PM's weak performance in the Commons. Blair will get his own back by requisitioning the Chancellor's living accommodation in No 11, which is already being called his "nanny flat".

Nicky Campbell, the baby-faced Scot who presents Tony Blair's favourite radio show - the one on which he speaks to the nation without the osmotic membrane of the press - is deeply unhappy not to get an award this year. There are so many media prizes around that this looks like carelessness, rather than lack of ability. He may well have to make do with an invitation to a No 10 glitz party instead. One of his people reminds me, most unfairly, that the BBC ban on mentioning Peter Mandelson's homosexuality on air is still in force.

Toddling across to the Atrium, the media canteen at 4 MilIbank under the Beeb and Sky TV, I come across Frank Dobson and his mini-entourage fresh from a briefing about his vibrant candidacy for the London mayoralty. He is terribly excited that Ken "Readies" Livingstone has revisited his infamous remarks about the IRA. I think this is known in the trade as clutching at straws.

The writer is chief political commentator for the Mirror

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Englishness: who cares?