Paul Routledge hears of bad Tory table manners

Ministers keep jobs for now, appalling Tory table manners, and Corbyn's woolly jumper

The speculation about Tony Blair's impending cabinet reshuffle may all turn out to be a waste of time. The word from the usual sources is that the Great Helmsman is thinking of postponing the new crewing arrangements, perhaps until the autumn. Ministers need not clog up Downing Street with their declarations of undying loyalty. All may keep their jobs, but especially the PM's former neighbour, Mrs Witter, aka the Chief Whip, Hilary Armstrong.

Over to Shepherds restaurant and Michael Howard's lunch with the Westminster lobby girlies. The Tory leader stupefied his audience with table manners more suited to a greasy spoon in Llanelli than the politicians' top eatery. He fork-attacked his onion flan before shovelling down the rubber chicken. Ladies present insist he didn't use his left hand at all, and ate strawberries with his fingers. Not that you can trust what some call the "lezzy lobby" (a graceless slur, I might add), because most of them were so busy "bagging" the best table places with their handbags that he could have announced the death penalty for voting Labour without anyone noticing.

It was routinely observed that David Hill would not be another dictatorial Alastair Campbell in No 10. Hmmm. The post of director of communications in Blair's office, newly taken by Howell James, was supposed to go to a deputy permanent secretary, in accordance with the Phillis report's recommendations on government presentation. But no. "I've dropped all that," says Hill airily.

The Islington Fabian Pat Haynes has solved the mystery of the sartorial leniency shown to Jeremy Corbyn MP. How does he get away with his appalling woolly jumpers in the Commons, despite colleagues' complaints? It turns out that, after a discussion, a former Speaker, Bernard Weatherill, gave him dispensation. Weatherill, a master tailor by trade, once sat across a negotiating table with Corbyn, then a National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers official. This is a more convincing explanation than Corbyn's claim that he is allowed to blight the chamber "because my mother knits them".

Further intelligence from the Strangers' Bar, where the door to the Commons Terrace has been locked by the Speaker on "security" grounds. For emergencies, a special electronic knob has been fitted. Naturally, it was broken by an MP within minutes. (Wild horses will not drag the name of Keith Vaz from my lips.) A regular parade of MPs can now be seen trying the knob while reading the sign that tells them the door is locked. And they want to run the country.

Irritating to relate, the one-time top people's paper, the Times, came top in the Press Gallery pub quiz, though I seem to recall a member of the audience coughing at crucial intervals. But if the reporters are so smart, why is the paper such Blairite junk?

Paul Routledge is chief political commentator for the Daily Mirror

This article first appeared in the 19 July 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Blair is weighed in the balance and found wanting