Paul Routledge

William Hague may laugh a lot, but he has scant sense of the absurd. He's banned the chicken-run, that hallowed Tory tradition permitting Tory MPs or ex-MPs to regard a safe seat as an inalienable human right. Previous beneficiaries include Michael Ancram, Sir Brian Mawhinney and Peter Lilley. But at the next election, only half a dozen MPs - mostly former ministers - are being given priority in "safe" Conservative constituencies.

They include the gruesome David Shaw, who will return at Kingston and Surbiton (temporarily on loan to the Lib Dems), and Greg Knight, the former whip, who has been given Yorkshire East. Alistair Burt, the diminutive former DSS minister, is also on the list.

But the best joke at Chairman Ancram's party at Bournemouth was that Charles Hendry, a former party vice-chairman who lost in 1997, will stage a comeback at Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith's Wealden constituency because his wife outspent his rivals. "She's very rich, y'know," confided a jealous Tory. "She bought him an Austin Martin for Christmas, and a safe seat for his birthday."

"Stay calm!" Alastair Campbell told a breathless lobby journalist after Labour's high-profile defeat on pensions at the party conference. "Calm is a good place to be." Er, has he ever been there? Ali as the author of the new Labour Little Book of Calm is mildly incongruous.

The PM's press spokesman should have a word with Boris Johnson, editor of the Spectator and candidate to succeed Michael Heseltine at Henley. He harbours irrational fears that the Lib Dems will deprive him of his inheritance. A bit of calm would come in handy there.

A particularly vicious "news release" has been put out by gay Tory rivals of OutRage! It names, with pictures, eight allegedly homosexual Conservative MPs, four of them frontbenchers. Denouncing their voting records as "homophobic", it says: "This prejudice shames and dishonours the Conservative Party. Don't be fooled by the homophobia of these eight MPs. It is mostly a smokescreen to disguise their own homosexuality and curry favour with the party's still-powerful anti-gay majority." Unlike our very own Peter Tatchell, the gay Tory vanguardists hide their shame and dishonour behind the anonymity of a computer website.

And who is this, jogging on the seafront at Bournemouth, risking lift-off in the high wind? Why, none other than Andrew "Big Ears" Marr, political editor of the BBC. A gossipy guest at his recent 40th birthday party reveals that Lord Archer was first among the invited equals.

The rise and rise of Marr has prompted the departure of the BBC political correspondent John Kampfner in a fit of professional rage. Kampfner, once fancied (by himself) as the new Alastair Campbell, seethed at Marr's takeover of the Today programme, on which his (Marr's) ears cannot be seen.

St Mo is showing signs of stress. In Brighton, she berated a political correspondent at a restaurant, offering to answer two questions if he paid for her meal. When he demurred, she picked up a stone cat used as a doorstop and plonked it down on his table as "an award". In the Grand Hotel, Nick Robinson was interviewing her for the BBC. "What's it about?" she asked. "Gordon Brown's speech," replied the former leader of the Young Conservatives. "Oh, what did he say?" she inquired breezily.

Since she announced her decision to leave politics, Blair has been slow to decide who should replace her. Anxious backbenchers fear he will bring back Peter Mandelson. Meanwhile, the undisgraced Ulster Secretary has written to David Trimble, urging him not to believe a word of my Mandy biography. The hapless UU leader was caught on camera with it open on his knee.

MPs' secretaries hate the £300m Portcullis House. The windows won't open. There are not enough filing cabinets. It floods when it rains. The mice are everywhere. "And there is no bar," wailed a veteran Tory secretary.

This article first appeared in the 09 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Schools that teach children to lie