The insider - Paul Routledge reveals Trimble's secret meeting

Tony Blair's talks in Belfast with the Irish premier, Bertie Ahern, are only the tip of an iceberg. Extraordinarily, David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, went to the Irish embassy in London for a secret meeting with Ahern to discuss ways (I am sure they were called "modalities") of briefly restoring the power-sharing administration in the province so that elections can be held on schedule in May. Dublin sees Trimble as the best guarantor of stability over the border. It also believes that normalisation could lead to the IRA decommissioning arms on a scale that would allow a big withdrawal of British troops.

Why did John Prescott climb down on the firefighters' dispute, putting on ice his plans to ban strikes and impose a settlement? I hear that union leaders promised, at an emergency TUC general council, that this would lead to a full-blown public row. More to the point, they threatened to cut off funds to the cash-strapped Labour Party. Blair wisely decided not to fight on two fronts, preferring to take on Saddam Hussein rather than Andy Gilchrist.

MPs are wondering if there is any connection between the unpopularity of the war against Iraq and the new, thicker, harder plastic Labour Party membership card for 2003. Unlike the flimsy thing of previous years, it is virtually impossible to tear up. Indeed, there may be more casualties among those trying to do so than on the battlefield.

Theresa May has finally admitted that selection of wannabe Tory MPs has been suspended until after the May council elections. (Very confusing, all these Mays.) She also talked about 50-50 men/women shortlists, a fatuous notion because only 150 of the 1,000 members of Central Office's approved candidates are female. On one recent candidates' course, only two out of 16 were women.

Meanwhile, of the 13 winnable Labour seats to come before the governing clique, ten have been declared women-only. Of the three open to men, one just happens to be Normanton, West Yorkshire, where the Chancellor's adviser Ed Balls is showing strong interest. Difficult (if not fatal) to impose a woman there, since his wife, Yvette Cooper, has the seat next door.

To the mild dismay of his advisers, Iain Duncan Smith still insists on turning out to play football. At his age - coming up for 49 - he ought to know better. MPs have a bad record of broken limbs on the football pitch. But his spin-doctors say his recent interview about football went down well with the punters, and they plan to expose his Beckham side more in future. IDS supports Spurs, jostling the Labour general secretary, David Triesman, for the best seats at White Hart Lane, as well as our own Charlie Whelan.

Racist thugs as they are, BNP members have a sense of humour. Phil Woolas, the government whip and MP for Oldham East, who sensibly (but controversially) spoke up for white people subjected to racial attacks, is now depicted on the BNP website as the Westminster Red Faced Sheep, genus Cynicalis Opportunisticus. Woolas is bleating his innocence of the charge.

Teddy Taylor may be the most Eurosceptic of Tories, but my informant swears he saw some euros in the auld Scots teetotaller's wallet the other day.

Paul Routledge is chief political commentator for the Daily Mirror

This article first appeared in the 17 February 2003 issue of the New Statesman, As the world protests against war, we hear again the lies of old