The insider - Paul Routledge reports some Norman Tebbit jokes

More Mandy mischief, Brown's suspiciously small pic, and Tebbit's best joke

Mandelson's guiding hand is not only detected in the campaign of terror (see John Booth, page 16) against Harry Blackwood, editor of the Hartlepool Mail - whose offence was apparently "intensely limited horizons" in a built-up area. Mandy is also involved in the high-risk campaign by the Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, to stiff Gordon Brown over foundation hospitals. The acrimony grew so great that Downing Street put Lady (Sally) Morgan, Blair's top fixer, on the job. She told Milburn to cool it, because the row was hurting government ratings on the NHS. In fact, the anti-Brown dirt is being dished by Darren Murphy, the Health Secretary's bagman and a member of Mandy's mafia.

The Prime Minister did not exactly enjoy his Madrid summit with Jose MarIa Aznar. His RAF plane broke down, forcing him to travel with hoi polloi on a commercial flight. He had a streaming cold, and his Spanish hosts made it worse by smoking all over the Great Helmsman during dinner.

Iain Duncan Smith is to make two speeches on succeeding days at the Tory spring conference. The first will be on Iraq. The second will be on domestic issues, from which the trendy reference to football may be dropped after his Washington (Tyne and Wear) debacle, in which he praised Newcastle United,

oblivious to local people being Sunderland

supporters. His appropriation of Iraq has plainly upset his shadow defence secretary, the whingeing nudist Bernard Jenkin, who got his retaliation in first by declaring war in the Commons. And by way of clarification, I should say that Nicholas Watt of the Guardian does not go skinny-dipping at Jenkin's prompting, but of his own volition. My note on this handsome youth in last week's column set bosoms heaving in Lobby Lunchies, the all-female Westminster dining club that regularly ambushes politicians of a certain age who should know better.

The latest edition of Inside Labour, the party magazine, carries six photographs of Tony Blair, including the entire front cover. Four are plainly designed to convey the fiction that he is getting the better of Jeremy Paxman. The sixth shows the father of the nation on the campaign trail. David Blunkett gets two portraits, one full-page, while Gordon Brown gets one small pic. Is there a subliminal message for the future here?

Norman Tebbit came to lunch in the press gallery, showing he has lost none of the old venom. He heaped insults on the Tory modernisers, reserving special rancour for Michael Portillo. His best joke: "I could count on the fingers of a Finsbury Park Muslim cleric the number of voters who have asked me to support the legalisation of sex in public lavatories." In the bar, he called for a glass of parafino bianco, and when I asked him who he would like to be, if not himself, he shot back: "My identical twin brother." They just don't make them like him any more. Fortunately.

The word among Tory MPs is that if Michael Trend is obliged to give up his Windsor seat over the little matter of £90,000 expenses (since repaid), then Malcolm Rifkind would be a front-runner to return in the by-election. He could then be a compromise candidate to replace IDS. Alas, the Lib Dems have their eyes on the constituency, which could fall like a ripe plum.

Paul Routledge is chief political commentator for the Daily Mirror

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2003 issue of the New Statesman, America is no longer invincible