Paul Routledge

David Blunkett plainly knows there is a war on - the one between him and Gordon Brown to succeed Field Marshal Tony Blair. He was spotted at a conspiratorial dinner with Peter Mandelson in Westminster the other day, deep in discussion on the future of the world.

It is greatly to be hoped, as they used to say in Manchester Guardian leaders, that Blunkers is not relying too much on his recent tome about the cosmos, Politics and Progress. In it, he suggests free Lottery tickets for everyone who bothers to vote in a general election. This brilliant idea was first floated on BBC TV's On the Record. As an April Fool.

A tabloid newspaper columnist (not this one) went to interview Blunkett about his oeuvre. It became clear that the scribbler had not read the book. Angry Beard fumbled in a box by his desk and offered to flog him one. The offer was taken up, and the interview continued. When he left, the hack slapped his palm down on the desk, saying: "There's your twenty quid." Looking over his shoulder, he saw the Home Secretary furiously patting the desktop for the (non-existent) £20 note.

Speaking of Mandy, Mr Twice-Disgraced seems to be getting up to his old tricks, but to little avail. At a party, he spotted Bill Jeffrey, a top mandarin at the Northern Ireland Office. Wagging his finger in mock reproof, Mandelson sidled up and quipped: "I'm watching you!" Jeffrey, annoyed that his privacy had been disturbed, shot back: "F*** off, Peter." On another occasion, Mandy telephoned Sir Anthony Meyer, once John Major's press secretary and now our man in Washington. "Anything doing, old boy?" asked the ex-minister. "I cannot do anything for you. I work for HMG," replied Meyer icily, replacing the receiver.

The future of Annie's Bar, spiritual home of this column, is once again in doubt. Having taken out the draught beer, the Commons Catering Committee is considering the closure of the only licensed venue where MPs can talk to lobby correspondents with complete discretion. One idea is to turn Annie's into a club, and move it to the site currently occupied by the Ron Brown Memorial Showers, where the former member enjoyed congress.

Ann Widdecombe as Speaker? Not as far-fetched as you might think. After a long absence from the Tory front bench, Widdecombe has rejoined the Chairmen's Panel at Westminster, from which the Speaker is invariably selected. She will chair debates and may find herself in the Speaker's chair. Perhaps that GMTV make-over has a purpose.

The cream of Britain's Arabists gathered at the Foreign Office for the centennial bash of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs. They looked forward to seeing their host, the junior minister Ben Bradshaw. Alas, said officials, he was unavoidably detained at the House, where they were voting on the war against terrorism. Yet the vote took place before the party started, and the government's majority of 360 was scarcely at risk. And was not Ben Bradshaw the jacketless politician I saw leaving the BBC/Sky studios on his bicycle as the diplomatic warriors of empire gathered not half a mile away in Whitehall? If not, then he has a twin brother.

A few minutes before that vote, a series of explosions rent the night air at Westminster. Jittery MPs, fearing the Taliban were coming up the Thames, dived for cover. The culprit turned out to be a fireworks display, launched from a barge moored in front of Portcullis House.

True story. Hanging on the wall of the Labour whips' office is a page from the Daily Sport. Not a sexist pin-up, but a photograph of the backbencher and war rebel Paul Marsden, alongside the headline "The War Against Terror". OK, just read the first letter of each word.

Paul Routledge is chief political commentator for the Mirror Lynton Charles returns next week

This article first appeared in The New Statesman Essay - The Empire strikes back

2001-11-12