The insider - Kevin Maguire hears Gordon's best joke

Blunkett's memento of Kimberly, Howard's flying sycophants and Hoon's hunt for a comb

To China, with Comrade Brown. The "red papers" that he wrote in his younger days had significantly less impact than Mao Zedong's Little Red Book - except in Scotland, where they opened up a schism with Robin Cook over their authorship that reverberates to this day.

The go-faster Chancellor took two overnight flights so he could be in Beijing on Monday, Shanghai on Tuesday and both Shenzhen and Hong Kong on Wednesday. Hair waving and shirt untucked, his only care ahead of a 13-hour flight home was that he would miss the Barcelona-Chelsea and Man United-Milan football matches while in the air. He rang a trusted secretary to videotape a game so he could watch it at 6am in Downing Street.

During the flying visit, Brown told a rather good joke about a veteran communist who drones on for three hours at a meeting as the audience drifts away, until a lone man is left sitting in the hall. The communist suddenly stops and asks: "Even I'm bored. Why are you still here?" The man replies: "I'm the next speaker."

Good to see Alastair Campbell heeding the PM's advice to lower his profile following the "fuck off, you twats" tirade at the BBC. Apart, that is, from the Burnley nut's TV appearance as a football pundit alongside that Blackburn fan, Jack Straw, during an FA Cup clash between the teams. And his 10 March speech at a Westminster Press Gallery lunch. At least in a recent celebrity edition of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? Campbell had the good sense, when asking to call a friend, not to ring his mate John Scarlett.

Talk of dirty tricks in County Durham where, as I revealed last week, the Downing Street aide Liz Lloyd is trying to secure the safe seat of Bishop Auckland. When a potential rival, Mo O'Toole (the former Mrs Alan Milburn), asked her union Amicus for support she was told that No 10 was pulling out all the stops for Lloyd. There are mutterings of boycotts if O'Toole, an ex-MEP, is kept off the shortlist.

The resting cabinet minister David Blunkett is not a man to wear his heart on his sleeve. As a practical northerner, he wears it round his neck. A dashing maroon scarf earned him a compliment on the stump in Yorkshire. "That's nice," said a gran. "It's a remnant from my previous love life," replied Blunkett. "I gave most things back. This was so nice I hung on to it." A lawyer tells me that retaining custody of a scarf while Kimberly Quinn gets the kids is one of the worst deals he's ever come across.

Tory HQ has sent out e-mails seeking volunteers to sit in Michael Howard's battle bus in the last week of the general election campaign. The flying sycophants will alight in key seats and clap like mad when the Tory leader makes a speech, providing an instant enthusiastic audience in even the dreariest towns. However, Tory HQ's attempt to re-create the party's youth wing as boringly responsible, following the excesses of the disbanded ultra-right Young Tories, has failed. All the same, Conservative Future is still inviting its under-30s to the Curzon Mayfair in March to watch In the Face of Evil, a film pitching Ronald Reagan as the hero in a battle of good versus evil. Presumably a Dracula film was deemed inappropriate.

Labour HQ, too, is recruiting volunteers, which has led staff to recall the "great comb incident" of 2001. Geoff Hoon was unpopular even then, and when he wanted a comb before a TV appearance, no one would lend theirs. An aide was directed to a drawer where a greasy black number was found. It belonged to an unkempt lefty with an itchy scalp.

Kevin Maguire is associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Can free trade be fair trade?

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David Cameron’s starter homes: poor policy, but good politics

David Cameron's electoral coalition of buy-to-let retirees and dual-earner couples remains intact: for now.

The only working age demographic to do better under the Coalition was dual-earner couples – without children. They were the main beneficiaries of the threshold raise – which may “take the poorest out of tax” in theory but in practice hands a sizeable tax cut to peope earning above average. They will reap the fruits of the government’s Help to Buy ISAs. And, not having children, they were insulated from cuts to child tax credits, reductions in public services, and the rising cost of childcare. (Childcare costs now mean a couple on average income, working full-time, find that the extra earnings from both remaining in work are wiped out by the costs of care)

And they were a vital part of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. Voters who lived in new housing estates on the edges of seats like Amber Valley and throughout the Midlands overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives.

That’s the political backdrop to David Cameron’s announcement later today to change planning to unlock new housing units – what the government dubs “Starter Homes”. The government will redefine “affordable housing”  to up to £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 and under within it, while reducing the ability of councils to insist on certain types of buildings. He’ll describe it as part of the drive to make the next ten years “the turnaround decade”: years in which people will feel more in control of their lives, more affluent, and more successful.

The end result: a proliferation of one and two bedroom flats and homes, available to the highly-paid: and to that vital component of Cameron’s coalition: the dual-earner, childless couple, particularly in the Midlands, where the housing market is not yet in a state of crisis. (And it's not bad for that other pillar of the Conservative majority: well-heeled pensioners using buy-to-let as a pension plan.)

The policy may well be junk-rated but the politics has a triple A rating: along with affluent retirees, if the Conservatives can keep those dual-earner couples in the Tory column, they will remain in office for the forseeable future.

Just one problem, really: what happens if they decide they want room for kids? Cameron’s “turnaround decade” might end up in entirely the wrong sort of turnaround for Conservative prospects.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.