The insider - Paul Routledge admires Prescott's literary criticism

Blair cold-shoulders hacks, Big Ears to step down and John Prescott tries a bit of lit crit

Tony Blair had no contact with political journalists on his visit to the US, modelling his contempt for the British media on the disdain routinely shown by the White House. His spokesman, the Downing Street-weary Godric Smith, made himself available only a few minutes before the joint press conference in Washington, DC to say that the PM would "speak for himself". Apart from the three main TV stations, none of the Brits was allowed to ask a question, and had to huddle round a loudspeaker at the back. Small wonder that news managers

are questioning the cost of flying Air Blair.

Indeed, this time, there was no prime ministerial plane, so Blair did not have to speak to reporters on the way back. But then, neither did he on the trip home with the press from meeting Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Unbelievably, hacks are beginning to yearn for the bad old days of Alastair Campbell.

Speaking of the veteran spinmeister and celebrity stage artiste, Ali C contributes an emotional memorial piece about John Smith to Old Queen Street's insipid new magazine, Labour Today. Campbell claims the Smith legacy in full, forgetting to mention that both he and Peter Mandelson were exiled to the political wilderness as soon as "John" (as Ali confidentially refers to him throughout) became leader.

Bored Labour whips have a new parlour game to while away the hours: find the five most useless ministers. Unanimously voted top is David Lammy, 31, the £85,000-a-year constitutional affairs minister. Close behind are Home Office lackey Fiona Mactaggart and, after her, Melanie Johnson, the Treasury pin-up girl. At this point, the whips realised they were talking to me, and broke off the conversation with a fake show of mortification. But not before a junior member of government added gleefully, "Ben Bradshaw". Maybe that's just a bit of prejudice. Baby-faced Ben is a smooth operator.

It is, say the usual sources in the Beeb, an "open secret" that Andrew Marr will step down from the BBC political editorship after the next election. This may come as news to Big Ears, though friends insist that he never saw the job as a long-distance number.

John Prescott has taken up literary criticism. He rated Austin Mitchell's first column in the Yorkshire Post as "crap". The following week it was "more crap", and then "yet more crap". When he gets to calling it "fucking crap", it may safely be assumed that he has read it. Or someone has read it to him.

Prices in the Commons bars are going up, though they will still fall well short of the real world outside. Average rises of 5 per cent are expected, and a particularly daft management notice insists that they "reflect increases in duty and changes in the sterling/euro rate exchange rate over the last 12 months". The what? House red at £1.35 a glass may be taken as a benchmark of current price levels. More intelligence from the bars later.

Paul Routledge is chief political commentator for the Mirror

This article first appeared in the 26 April 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Appeasement: Should we strike a deal?