Paul Routledge on Harriet Harman's ego trip

MPs get a military lecture, Harriet has her picture taken, and Prescott's strange mood

MPs are champing at the bit, or at least on something they should not - at an instruction from Chief Fancy Dress himself, the Serjeant at Arms, Sir Michael Cummins. He has instructed them not to eat or drink in the Members' Lobby, the hallowed quadrangle just outside the chamber. Quite what they have been scoffing is not clear: the austere lobby is hardly conducive to a sneak feed or a quiet swig. MPs are furious at being lectured in this way by a retired military man who could not even stop protesters attacking the PM as he sat on the front bench.

Time was when the general secretary of the Labour Party was called Len Williams. Or Harry. Or Ron. Names that you would not be ashamed of in a working men's club. All different now. Matt Carter, the teenage occupant of this once great office, has sent out an e-mail (what else?) rubbishing Michael Howard and asking recipients to "please forward to your friends to remind them how the Tories will wreck Britain again". The communication was sent to members of the Westminster lobby, who are most offended at kiddie Matt's presumption that they would want to join in a character assassination of the Tory leader. The general secretary promises not to pass on e-mail addresses. And of course we can trust him. He's new Labour, after all.

So kind of Harriet Harman to send me a copy of her report on a visit to Sierra Leone. In the 12-page document, her photograph appears a mere six times with children, with African women, with the domestic violence conference of the South London African Women's Organisation, with guards at the special court, with the deputy prosecutor and so on. A clue to Hattie's enthusiasm may be gleaned from the introduction, which states that "over 30 per cent of my constituents come from Africa, with some wards made up of almost 50 per cent Africans". Leaving aside the question of what exactly constitutes a 50 per cent African, the Solicitor General may be excused her sudden fascination with Sierra Leone.

I have already reported Austin Mitchell's brush with the whips for disappearing to his constituency before weekly close of play in the Commons. Now I learn of a wider crackdown. It seems as many as 40 or 50 Labour backbenchers have been sloping off early on Thursdays, or even Wednesdays, immediately after PM's Questions. "Thith mutht thtop," the Chief Whip, Hilary Armstrong, has wuled. But many of the MPs are not standing at the next election and, having no expectation of a peerage, are not susceptible to the usual threats or rewards. This situation is a direct result of the requirement of old Labour farts to disclose their retirement plans early in the parliament.

MPs are getting worried about John Prescott's peace of mind. They say he sits in parliamentary committees with his hands over his face much of the time. No one dares to interrupt his reverie, for fear of triggering Krakatoa Mark II.

Paul Routledge is chief political commentator for the Daily Mirror

This article first appeared in the 07 June 2004 issue of the New Statesman, D-Day for British politics