The insider - Paul Routledge hears Charles Clarke is no Des Lynam

PM to "engage" with people, Charles Clarke is no Des Lynam, and a Lib Dem fails PC test

Backbenchers called to an extraordinary meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party fully expected the Great Helmsman to lecture them on the vital Commons vote on foundation hospitals (which took place after the NS went to press). But Tony Blair surprised the gathering by talking instead about the national consultation exercise to be launched shortly. MPs cannot discuss this topic without laughing, but Blair insisted that the next election will be fought on different lines to traditional campaigning via posters and literature. It will all be about "engaging with the people". When one backbencher brought up foundation hospitals, likely "noes" were warned that a government defeat would almost certainly trigger a vote of confidence, which the government would easily win, but at some political cost.

The Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, takes his sons to watch Norwich City and gives an authoritative running commentary. His wannabe Des Lynam act fails to impress the city's other MP, the egghead ex-Trot Dr Ian Gibson, who sits a few feet away. "The man knows nothing about footba'," he growls. Not that there is much love lost between Gibson and His Bat-Eared Grumpiness. Gibson, who once trialled for St Mirren and plays for the Westminster side, is a fully paid-up Brownite, while Clarke knows he will be lucky to get a job as a school caretaker when the Chancellor usurps Blair.

Some Liberal Democrats have still to grasp the concept of political correctness. Responding to the (black) Leader of the Lords, Baroness Amos, in a debate on Iraqi "post-conflict reconstruction", the Lord Mackie of Benshie paid tribute to the work being done by HMG, but pointed out that security is "without doubt the nigger in the woodpile". Benshie, a much-decorated RAF squadron leader in the last real war, lists golf and social life as his recreations. Social graces obviously got lost somewhere along the line.

The second coming is nigher than we thought. The printed agenda for the British-Spanish All-Party Parliamentary Group includes a mention of one Christ Bryant MP. I know he used to be a vicar, but this is ridiculous.

David Cameron, the rising star of the Tories' 2001 intake, exposed his weak flank during the IDS assassination, according to my shadow cabinet snout, Reggie Side. Cameron was Duncan Smith's coach for Prime Minister's Questions, and just before IDS's last joust with Blair he confessed to the leader that he intended to vote against him on the confidence motion. But once he got to the ballot box, Cameron got cold feet, or what passes for conscience in the Tory party, and voted for IDS. He was then foolish enough to tell other MPs, who marked him down as a waverer. Contrast the IDS loyalist Nigel Evans, who acted as shadow Welsh secretary from his inconveniently situated constituency, Ribble Valley in Lancashire. Evans jumped before Michael Howard could push him, and celebrated with champagne in the Strangers' Bar.

Howard's "team of all the talents" failed to find room for Francis Maude, who feels the slight terribly, or Damian Green, the ex-shadow education secretary. Does the latter's defenestration portend a shift from opposition to top-up fees? It is officially "under review".

Paul Routledge is chief political commentator for the Daily Mirror

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the affair