Paul Routledge

More accurate estimates of Tony Blair's cull of backbenchers are starting to emerge, suggesting it will fall short of large-scale slaughter. The usual sources now say that between five and ten Labour MPs "of a certain age" will be despatched to the knacker's yard, aka the Lords, well down on previous calculations of more than two dozen.

There is still the problem of where to put the Tory renegade Shaun Woodward, who has been hawked around the country like a tray of stale cakes. This column's note last week reporting No 10's desire to parachute him into Normanton, West Yorkshire, in place of Bill O'Brien, aged 72, aroused such local wrath that the plan looks certain to be shelved. This could give Ed Balls, the Chancellor's economics adviser, a clear run. Some argue that this was the real plot all along.

Stranger's Bar gossip identifies Huddersfield as the next likely target for Shaun and his butler, though the sitting member, Barry Sheerman, is only 60. The South Wales seat of Ogmore is also mentioned. The incumbent, Sir Ray Powell, coming up for 73, fought off moves to send him to the red benches last time round, collecting his "K" in the process. Less credible is the name of Dave Clelland, MP for Tyne Bridge and a whip.

Few tears are being shed (other than his own, for he is the village crier) over the departure of Labour-SDP-Lib Dem turncoat Robert Maclennan, known at Westminster as Gardez-Loo, on account of his chamber-emptying skills.

With heavy hearts, some backbenchers are already talking of Peter Mandelson's "Third Coming". He is putting himself about at Westminster in a big, hail-fellow-well-met way with MPs he couldn't even see over his curtain of vanity three months ago. Mandy is also selling himself outside, though his letter to lain Dale, Politico's bookseller-publisher, which begins "Dear David" indicates he has some way to go in this respect.

Meanwhile, staffers at Millbank fully expect to get it in the neck from Mandelson if there is a bad result on 7 June, though naturally "Bobby" will claim the credit if things go well.

The Prime Minister's leaden self-outing as a man who wears glasses was almost a presentational disaster. No 10 told the few lobby hacks attending the London Press Club lunch that "something" would happen. Cameras were instructed to stay on him. But only Sky TV got the full thing, and vanity-troubled Blair was not pleased to have to go through the whole rigmarole of pulling out his specs a second time for the snappers.

A brilliant move by Fourth Estate to reissue Francis Wheen's biography of Tom Driberg, The Soul of Indiscretion. The old gay monster's bid to get Mick Jagger into parliament is fascinating. Over dinner with Marianne Faithfull in the Stone's Cheyne Walk pad, Driberg urged Mick to become involved with Labour because the revolution might be at hand. This was in 1967, shortly after Jagger's conviction for drug possession. Tom may have had motives other than political. At the first meeting, he blurted out: "Oh my, Mick, what a big basket you have!"

Drama in Gravesham. Sleaze, indeed, according to a press release from Jacques Arnold, former Tory MP for the marginal Kent seat. His rival, Chris Pond - PPS to the Paymaster General, Dawn Primarolo - had been "found guilty of inappropriate use of Commons stationery", he claimed. Hardly so. Arnold had subtly edited details of a letter from the assistant Serjeant at Arms, Mark Harvey. Pond had inadvertently sent £93 worth of letters to electors in the wrong envelopes, and the sum has since been made up from his correct postage budget. Harvey expressly stated that the authorities did not find "anything inappropriate". This correct version has now surfaced in the Gravesend Messenger. Arnold admits that his actions were "rather unfortunate". The Gravesham voters may take a less generous view.

Paul Routledge is chief political commentator for the Mirror

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, John Prescott: sinking fast