Paul Routledge

Now that the Tories have given up any idea of winning the election, attention is turning to the succession. No, not to WilIiam Hague. To Tony Blair. Campaign groups around Gordon Brown, Jack Straw and Peter Mandelson are already taking shape, according to a senior snout in the Parliamentary Labour Party on his way to a Brownite gathering at the Foreign Press Association. His calculation, shared by a number of MPs, is that Blair will find something more interesting to do in 2003, so the race to succeed him must start now.

Further talk of succession in the Lords. Baroness Jay of Haughtiness is regarded as for the chop, to be replaced either by Blair's chum Lord Falconer or Lord Williams of Mostyn, the Attorney General. Trouble is, Williams wants to be Lord Chancellor, which offers a very good pension. Meanwhile, Lord Irvine wants to be Foreign Secretary, as Lord Carrington was under the Conservatives.

At first sight, it looked very big of the Chancellor to give his quondam friend Robin Cook a private dinner at No 11. It took place only a few days after the Foreign Secretary's sidekick denounced Brown as unfit to be Prime Minister. But I hear the meal had been fixed up long before the anti-Gordon tirade, for which Cook was rightly apologetic.

Tory tribulations about Michael Portillo and his conversion to touchy-feely politics do not deserve much compassion. On his return to Westminster, the Big Beast wanted to go somewhere nice, like shadow education, where he could be kind to kids and promise to spend lots of money. But a friend of Amanda Platell, Hague's spin-doctress, suggested that the best way to stuff Portillo and prevent him threatening the leader would be to make him shadow chancellor. There, he would come unstuck against Ir'n Broon. A glint, it is said, came into Amanda's eye.

Fraser Kemp, new Labour's all-purpose fixer and MP for the north-east constituency of Houghton and Washington East, asked to comment on the Carlton Club's vote to deny women admission, prepared a condemnatory quote. Then he remembered that his own club, Westwood Workingmen's, also bans women in the finest Andy Capp tradition of the region.

Some MPs have talents they could exploit if they lose their seats next May, or whenever Peter tells Tony to go to the country. I have my doubts about Phil Woolas, member for the three-way marginal of Oldham East and Saddleworth, however. He confessed that he plays the spoons, and then ran away when asked to demonstrate.

No doubt by some administrative oversight, an invitation comes through the post from Peter Mandelson to his Christmas drinks party. It is being held when most senior political hacks are in Nice for the European summit. However, I shall not be on the riviera so it would be churlish to refuse his mince pies and hot water with lemon. I will try to avoid drawing the Northern Ireland Secretary's attention to the advent of a Mandy website. This offers page after page of female alias anagrams for the leader's little helper, most of them unprintable but including Ms Darleen Epton and Ms Adele Ann Port.

News that the Labour Party is to return to Blackpool for its annual conference in October 2002 is greeted with fear and loathing by the Westminster lobby, until some bright spark cheers us all up with the remark that "this is the soonest that Virgin Trains can get back to their old timetable".

John Prescott is telling everyone who will listen, and quite a few who won't, that he is really a very sensitive guy, deeply upset by the "macho" tag hung round his neck by Madam Pinguin, the French environment minister. How does he support this claim to tendresse? By saying that he has been to see the sentimental film Billy Elliot four times.

The writer is chief political commentator for the Mirror