The whispers

A Chinese culture clash and a search for Gordie's stand-in

Supreme Leader's brush with death, as a stricken BA jumbo gliding over his armoured convoy will forever be known, triggered a collective scratching of Whitehall heads. Gordon Brown's failure to appoint a deputy PM to fill John Prescott's loafers would trigger an unseemly scramble just to fill in at PMQs, should he fall under a jet. Leader of the Commons, deputy Labour leader, etc, etc, etc, Hattie "Multitasker" Harperson, believes she's the rightful understudy, I hear. Not so, argue supporters of legal eagle Jack "The Lad" Straw, who assert that only their man, the Lord Chancellor indeed, has the authority and experience to do the job. My snout at No 10 whispers that Big Gordie, anticipating the ferret fight, is determined never to miss PMQs. Unless, of course, Peter Mandelson ever becomes a pilot.

A culture clash on the Brownways whistle-stop tour of Asia - three overnight flights in five days - at a Beijing "town hall meeting" between Premiers Wen and Gordie and Chinese cadres. "Please stand up and applaud," instructed a note handed to the British press, "when the two PMs enter the venue." Her Majesty's Disloyal Media, I'm delighted to report, remained fidgeting and seated. Beardie Richard Branson (left) was later spied rocking on a table at a Beijing nightclub. His partying, I'm sure, was unconnected with any conversation he didn't have with Uncle Gordie about Northern Rock.

A penny is dropping over Hain the Vain's survival despite receipts for £103,000 in donations found down the back of a sofa. If the Still-in-Work Secretary was dumped, there isn't anyone else in the cabinet with a Cymru seat to do his weekend job as Welsh Viceroy. The Cardiff MP Kevin Brennan, who pops over the Severn to run England's schools, is tipped for promotion, but not yet, while Kim Howells and David Hanson aren't exactly Brownies. The thought that Hain might be indispensable was too much to bear in Strangers', where another round was ordered.

Lightweight hacks are smarting over an unceremonious dumping from Westminster's annual tug-of-war contest, cruelly replaced by City blue bloods. Macmillan Cancer's bean-counters decreed that unfit lobby scribblers don't pull their weight on the rope or financially, being regular losers who fail to attract sponsorship. The charity world is evidently a tougher business than politics.

A trip down memory lane. One Labourite recalls the briefings of "Two Shags" Prescott to fill in for Tony Blair at PMQs. Prezza demanded a gag to swat Vince Cable, then an earnest figure before his emergence as a funny guy. Cable started out as a Liberal, joined Labour, defected to the SDP, then moved to the Liberal Democrats. Why not, a Labour MP suggested, quip he's enjoyed more parties than Paris Hilton? "Good idea," replied Prezza. "I think I've stayed in that hotel." He was told the joke referred to a socialite, and not the actual French building.

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 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer