Paul Routledge

The fabled closeness between No 10 and No 11 Downing Street is, it seems, precisely that. A myth. Nobody thought to tell Tony Blair the date of the Budget when he decided to pay a state visit to Poland next month, and set in hand preparations for his royal progress. Belatedly, he discovered that he would be away when the Chancellor does his business on 9 March.

Oo, er. That might not go down too well. What would the trivia-obsessed commentators make of his absence from the government front bench as Ir'n Broon whacks company car owners and middle-class recipients of child benefit? A rift, nay, a split! The trip was discreetly put off.

A pity. He could have taken the noted ornithologist, Kenneth Clarke, with him. With a fine regard for the intricacies of trade and diplomacy, the ex-chancellor spent most of his last excursion to Poland bird-watching. Beyond Our Ken would certainly have had no qualms about absenting himself from Westminster. He is a former employment secretary, but he wasn't there to vote on new Labour's rights at work bill. "I know it was a three-line whip," he admitted. "But on our side they always are. It's ridiculous." Upwards of 30 fellow Conservatives shared his view that night, giving the government a majority of 260.

No wonder government whips are still happy to send backbenchers home for "constituency weeks", despite finding out that some stretch the definition to include - in known cases - Paris and New York.

To paraphrase Peter Mandelson, I could scarcely believe I was hearing this: Alex Salmond offering Charlie Whelan a job to spin for the Scottish Nationalists. But he was in deadly earnest. "Come on," he coaxed Gordon's former right-hand man. "Do a real job for a real country."

This shameless proposal, made in front of your diarist at the Channel 4 bash for parliamentary political awards, was rapidly rebutted. Whelan may love Scotland - he hid in the Grampians during new Labour's Christmas crisis. But he is no Nat. He declined politely. Well, as politely as he knows how. He seemed to suggest that the offer was well-hung.

Salmond's brass neck may have been influenced by strong rumours that Jimmy Reid, hero of the Clyde and (like Whelan) formerly a staunch communist in the engineering workers' union, is about to defect to the SNP. The Nats' leader denied the defection story, but not very convincingly. This would be Jimmy's third party, and second tergiversation. Politics is beginning to ape the pattern of employment. No job for life, no party for life.

The five-month-long Stuff Charles Kennedy Campaign, hereinafter known as the Liberal Democrat leadership contest, has been boosted by Lady (Diana) Maddock. Chancing upon Kennedy - the bookies' and the commentators' favourite - in the Westminster lobby, Paddy's peeress told him that candidates would have to campaign from their present shadow portfolios. "But I've only got agriculture," he moaned. "Precisely!" smirked Lady Maddock. Then, thinking of the possibilities, Kennedy brightened considerably. "I'll just have to organise another Countryside March!"

So who suggested before the election that Tony Blair would operate "a more Napoleonic system" of government rather than the traditional collegiate model? In his illuminating new essay on the Downing Street control centre, Professor Peter Hennessy discloses that it was "a member of Tony Blair's innermost circle, a position he retains to this day". Step forward Jonathan Powell, chief of staff. He obviously hasn't watched much Dad's Army, in which the fussy, self-important platoon chief Captain Mainwaring is known behind his back as Napoleon. On the other hand, come to think of it . . .

Paul Routledge is chief political commentator for the "Mirror" His biography of Peter Mandelson is available from the "NS" at the special price of £16.99 (inc p&p); his "Gordon Brown" at £12.99; or £25 for both. Ring 0800 7318496

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think