Charlie K’s txt book denial

Political leadership is a stressful business, so it is no wonder that some turn to smoking. But cigarettes went out of fashion in British politics several decades ago, as Neil Kinnock's attempts to swap fags for a more respectable pipe in the 1980s showed. Since becoming Conservative leader in 2005, David Cameron has - like Barack Obama - never smoked in public. Periodically, however, rumours emerge of the odd puff in private.

One such occasion is said to have been with the visiting Palestinian prime minister, a more habitual smoker. Salam Fayyad's last visit to the UK was in December 2008, so there remains no reason to doubt the PM's current insistence that he has indeed kicked the habit.

A rather more unashamed smoker, Charles Kennedy, has been in the spotlight recently as rumours circulated that he was considering joining Labour. While it's no secret that Kennedy is opposed to Nick Clegg's alliance with Cameron, talk of defection is wrong. This month, at a time the ex-Lib Dem leader was reported to have gone "off the radar" (when he was simply on holiday), Kennedy texted a friend, branding the story "100 per cent total bollocks from start to finish". Angry Lib Dem spinners are pointing the finger at Labour MPs, including the whip John Spellar, for spreading it around Westminster at the height of the silly season. But ominously for Labour as well as Clegg, Kennedy is instead believed to envisage a powerful future within a party that, supporters say, "has temporarily left Charles, rather than the other way around".

Another little Labour plot appears to have had more success. Before the general election, the Scottish Roman Catholic hierarchy, including Cardinal Keith O'Brien, agreed that the SNP leader, Alex Salmond, could meet Benedict XVI during the Glasgow leg of the papal visit in September. Opposition to the plan came from Labour, the SNP's major rival north of the border, and when the new Tory-led government found out, it tried to revive the meeting. But it was too late. At the beginning of July, the Vatican told Cardinal O'Brien that there was no room in the schedule. with Prince Charles also snubbed, word is that only the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury will enjoy one-to-one meetings with the troubled pontiff.

The Fifa team in charge of England's bid to host the 2018 World Cup went to No 10 on 23 August. Outside, the PM's Arsenal-supporting official spokesman Steve Field stumbled when asked: "Is there a genuine football fan in the cabinet?" Clegg's game is tennis, and while Cameron claims to support Aston Villa, insiders say there is little evidence for that.

Whatever his shortcomings, Gordon Brown (privately) displayed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game. Labour folk have long said England only ever won the tournament in 1966 because their party was in government. Could the same apply to staging it, too?

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the NS. Kevin Maguire returns next week

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Face off