Paul Routledge

Change and dismay are all around. Tony Blair's bad week is prompting unfavourable comparisons with his predecessor. The ex-chancellor Norman Lamont is telling anyone who will listen: "I never thought he would turn out so much like John Major."

He has an axe to grind, and so has Sheila Gunn, the former prime minister's party press aide, who now remembers that, on a plane trip with Blair and Major, the great helmsman betrayed signs of incipient panic during a mild emergency. "I always knew he would break under pressure," she confides.

But one hears the same theme, more anxiously expressed, among Labour MPs fearful for their seats. No wonder they were all popping in for a livener in the Strangers' Bar before going off to see the Queen the other night.

And the PM is clearly anxious that Chancellor Brown's hour of destiny may be approaching. During the weekend do-as-you're-told festival in Exeter, dignified with the title of National Policy Forum, union bosses unhappy with the strategy on pensions asked to speak to Gordon. "You can't," snapped Blair. "He's on a Lufthansa plane to Tokyo for the G7 summit." "Don't they have phones on German aircraft?" asked the brothers, knowing full well that they do. The conference lived up to high expectations of dullness. One senior minister told me it was boring. Asked if this did not mean that the election manifesto would also be boring, he exploded with mirth: "I hope so!"

Carry on smoking! The Commons Accommodation Committee, which oversees the move of a large number of MPs from 4 Millbank and Norman Shaw South building to Portcullis House, the £300m architectural monstrosity opposite Big Ben, has decided, on the casting vote of its chairman, the Tory MP Sir Sydney Chapman, that members may smoke in their offices. Kevin Barron, the Labour MP who campaigns tirelessly against the weed, is disappointed. I suspect the real reason why they will be allowed to light up is that they do not want to be photographed during a fag break on the pavement, chatting up secretaries and researchers also out for a gasper.

To the studios of Sky TV to take part in Answer the Question with the Leader of the House. I have known Margaret Beckett since she was Miss Jackson, the research tyro of Transport House, but my co-interrogator Simon Heffer, the Daily Mail's answer to the Soviet prosecutor Vyshinsky, has not met her before and is impressed by her coolness under fire. After the show, he mumbles such admiration that I think he would rather like to be summoned to her room for a good slap about the legs for being so reactionary.

Labour MPs are falling over themselves to tell me that Barbara Follett has blown it. By advertising for a co-ordinator for the general election, they snigger, she has invited an embarrassing interest in her election expenses. Many candidates routinely overspend, and by-elections are a byword for election-law breaches. I had not realised just how much poor Babs is disliked at Westminster, but it shows that the late Robert Rhodes James was right: Labour is the great hater's party.

What some people will do to win. Jack Dromey, aka Mr Harriet Harman, knowing that new Labour abhors facial hair, has shaved off his loud ginger beard in readiness for his bid for the leadership of the Transport and General Workers' Union when Bill Morris retires. Jack, who has lost twice before, now has the support of Peter Mandelson, the great undisgraced. But that is probably the kiss of death in the TGWU.

Who is that avuncular figure fast asleep in the front row of the royal box at Wimbledon, snugly wrapped in a warm blanket while Agassi and Rafter play the game of their lives? Why, none other than Edward Heath, studiously avoiding conversation with the chap sitting next to him, Prince Michael of Kent.

The writer is chief political commentator for the Mirror

This article first appeared in the 17 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Special Report - Lost souls in the city in the sky