The insider - Kevin Maguire hears rumblings in Trimdon

Sedgefield rumours, Big Mac's tank, and the launch of Make Cherie's Poverty History

Well, well, well. My ferret fancier propping up the Trimdon Labour Club bar calls to report that jockeying is under way in Sedgefield to inherit Tony Blair's safe seat. The word locally is that Blair will do a Thatcher and stand down at the general election following his departure from Downing Street. The prospect of a 500-mile round trip every other weekend to hear Mrs Geordie's problems with her drains is, apparently, unappealing when you've had your finger over the nuclear button for eight years. Putting himself about with new vigour in County Durham's old pit villages is the lobbyist Phil Wilson, once the constituency's membership secretary. Wilson dreams of returning home triumphantly from the Big Smoke. Some who stayed put have other ideas.

Congress House on the hottest weekend of the year, and several hundred assorted lefties are discussing life after Tony. At a session organised by the Save the Labour Party group, the former environment minister Michael Meacher jokes - or at least I think he was joking - that I'll end up face down in the Thames for apostasy. Labour's candidate in Devizes complains that her disillusioned local party has melted away, leaving her with only three activists at the election. That's two more than can be found in some seats.

The enthusiasm of ministers despatched to trade union conferences can be gauged by an exchange eavesdropped at a belated bash for Labour's campaign team. Ian "Big Mac" McCartney, the Kylie Minogue-sized (height-only category) figure appointed Labour chair and minister without portfolio, is seeking protection before facing party supporters fighting privatisation in the public services. Encountering the Defence Secretary, John "General" Reid, Big Mac inquired: "I'm off to a Unison conference. Do you have a tank I could borrow?"

Sir Humphrey risks a flood of compensation claims from impoverished scribblers who, now they know he banks up to £264,000 a year as chief mandarin, want their money back. Thirteen years ago, Gus O'Donnell, now the new cabinet secretary, devised a fail-safe betting system that failed badly at a Warsaw casino, Fleet Street's finest waving goodbye to a sizeable slice of their expenses at the roulette table. O'Donnell, then John Major's press secretary, was taken to task by the zlotyless hacks and blithely replied: "It's no surprise. I've been an economic forecaster for most of my life, and you know what? I don't think I ever got a forecast right." Sir Humphrey, I discover, also blew the expenses of some of Gordon Brown's entourage at a casino in Mauritius during a 1997 fact-finding mission.

As Cherie Blair prepares to open a shopping centre in Malaysia, here is a scheme to answer her family's plea for international help in staving off destitution. The Make Cherie's Poverty History campaign is to demand debt relief, cancelling that crippling £2.3m London mortgage, and talk justice, ending the scandal of her being paid just £30,000 for a 90-minute interview. All proceeds from the sale of No 10 breadline wristbands will go to the hard-pressed family. Donations may be solicited from Tanzania and Uganda where, after the G8 summit, people should be in a better position to help those in real need.

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 27 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Smokescreen