Paul Routledge

Fresh tickles from the election front. North-east regional Labour Party chiefs are so worried about "instability" in the Hartlepool constituency of the undisgraced Ulster Secretary, Peter Mandelson - some local Labour stalwarts are apparently sitting on their hands - that they have decided to draft in party workers from outside to bolster his failing appeal. The idea that the leader's little helper could lose his seat is unthinkable, except that it used to be a Tory constituency represented by MPs with whom you could easily imagine Mandy exchanging pleasantries in the Smoking Room.

Difficulties are not confined to Labour. Alan Duncan, William Hague's cruelly abandoned spin-doctor, is privately revising upwards the number of seats the Tory leader must take from the government if he is to survive. The figure stands at 80, and is still climbing.

By the way, I keep hearing that the Prime Minister's spin-doctor Alastair Campbell is a big fan of David Davis, the Tory chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. Davis, a tyke with a rugby-playing nose, and a former Foreign Office minister, is regarded as the dark horse to succeed when the Tory meltdown comes. He could be looking for a high-profile press secretary about the time Big Gordie is handed the poisoned chalice of premiership and Campbell is looking for another job. And wasn't working for a Conservative councillor Ali's first experience of public relations?

Lord (Charlie) Falconer is getting more relaxed about running the show, by all accounts. In the Strangers' Bar the other night, he unburdened himself at full volume to Peter Kilfoyle, the former defence minister. "Trouble is, y'know," boomed the Dome minister (as he still is, alas), "this government is peopled by morons!" Since he is an absolutely brilliant advocate with a sense of modesty to match, Charlie plainly does not have himself in mind. Odd, then, that he should go out on the toot with Tom "Scoop" Baldwin, the deputy political editor of the Times - not exactly the wisest way to spend the night. "Come and see me at 9.30 in the morning!" was Charlie's parting shot. "I'll give you a long interview." Scoop duly turned up on time at the Cabinet Office, slightly the worse for going the full distance, only to be told that Lord Circumference was not available, and anyway had a full diary of important government business that day.

Gordon Brown has reappeared in the Members' Tea Room, where MPs occasionally drink tea but usually more mind-altering liquids, to pat Labour backbenchers on the shoulder and invite them into his office for a little chat. Opinion is evenly divided between the assumption that this is the start of the general election, or Ir'n Broon's bid for the leadership. And, by the way, his bride Sarah is not having a baby, as she testily informed her husband's ex-spin doctor a few days ago. Only asking, Mrs Brown! Only asking!

Cherie Blair has put the mockers on any help for Linda McDougall's forthcoming biography of Britain's First Lady. But her minder Fiona Millar, Alastair Campbell's partner (such a cosy arrangement), has given approval for an interview with Cherie by Anne McElvoy, the birdlike but pushy pal of Peter Mandelson. It will appear in that chic magazine in New York edited by Tina Brown, presumably just in time to be picked up and run in the British papers around election time.

Ted Rowlands, the Mozart-loving, dart-playing outgoing MP for Merthyr Tydfil and former minister in the Wilson governments, has written what must be the definitive account of the war between South Wales and Whitehall in the critical period of 1921-51. Something Must Be Done chronicles the relationship between "a society in distress and its governors, mandarins and ministers". The title is taken from King Edward VIII's famous remark on a visit to the stricken valleys in 1936, but I had not realised that, like Jim Callaghan's "crisis, what crisis?", the quotation is of doubtful veracity.

The writer is chief political commentator for the Mirror

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the great cover-up