The great Lib Dem blunder, Barbara Castle's lipstick, and goodbye to all that
Roly-poly Lord Rennard of Abacus is human, after all. In the double by-election battle, the much-vaunted Lib Dem strategy genius panicked in the last week and pulled his troops out of Birmingham Hodge Hill to Leicester South. By that time, Jim Marshall's old Leicester seat was in the bag for the Lib Dems, but Brum was still ripe for the taking. "If they had stayed put, they would almost certainly have beaten us," chortled one relieved minister. The twice-disgraced former minister Peter Mandelson did nobody any favours by turning up with his circumferential ex-SDP pal Roger Liddle, the former Downing Street adviser. This pair of has-beens toured the streets as a double act, to the dismay of local activists who were trying to pretend that Blair had nothing to do with the poll.
Meanwhile, MPs are contemplating the Martin Bell solution for Hartlepool, should Mandy be appointed European commissioner. All the opposition parties would stand down in favour of the monkey who won the mayoralty, thus sending to parliament for the first time a representative of the Simian Tendency.
Is the Met taking David Blunkett's get-tough policy with criminals too literally? Minutes after Tom Kelly, the No 10 man nobody wants to believe, briefed the Westminster lobby on Blair's drive against crime, the hacks were wandering down from Pall Mall towards St James's Park when the fuzz intervened. "Get out of the way!" they shouted, as their motorbikes bounced down the steps, in a fair imitation of The Italian Job.
History, but nice. Hazel Blears, the Home Office cabinet wannabe, says that when she worked for Barbara Castle in Strasburg, the flame-haired temptress (Barbara, not Hazel) insisted: "There is always time to put on your lipstick." Some time previously, on her way to the BBC, Castle scolded her then secretary Janet (now MP) Anderson for failing to lay on a make-up artist. "But it's radio," she pointed out. By the way, informed opinion at Westminster still believes that Babs had an affair with Roy Jenkins. Certainly, she was always attentive to her appearance when she went to see him.
Time to hang up the cap and bells and deflate the pig's bladder on a stick. The palace jester is going home, so this is the last column from me. Five and a half years chronicling the follies at Westminster and beyond should be enough for anyone. But the show will go on. Physics has not yet discovered a force powerful enough to prevent venality, stupidity and vanity among the political classes. Ditto, to a large extent, among those who feed off them: the journalists, the spin-doctors, the advisers, the lobbyists and the influence-peddlers. That's what makes it such exhausting fun to watch. The things that go on in the mad gothic shed by the river make Vanity Fair look like a penny-dreadful. I shall miss it. Meantime, many thanks to all those whose whispered asides made the column possible. Your secrets are safe with me. Well, except you, John, and you, Steve and you, Jane . . .
Paul Routledge is chief political commentator for the Daily Mirror