Meet Tony Blair's newest new best friend: Dennis Skinner

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TONY BLAIR has found a new best friend. Dennis Skinner, the left- winger nicknamed the Beast of Bolsover, has become a surprising confidant of the Prime Minister.

Downing Street has let it be known that Mr Blair would be delighted if Mr Skinner is, as expected, re-elected to Labour's ruling National Executive Committee this week.

The MP for Bolsover, Derbyshire, a former miner, has become the unofficial link man between the Prime Minister and the so-called "awkward squad" of left-wingers in the Commons. Mr Blair regularly telephones him for advice and invites him for tea in his Parliamentary office.

"They get on very well," a Downing Street source said. "The Prime Minister has a very high opinion of Dennis - he's got a soft spot for him like we all do. The Dennis Skinner of 1998 is not the Dennis Skinner of 1988 or 1978. He's become a lot more constructive in his outlook and approach."

New Labour apparatchiks say that Mr Skinner is less damaging to the party than some of his left-wing compatriots. During the Wirral by-election he was deployed telephoning wavering Labour voters who were concerned about the direction in which Mr Blair was taking the party. He would ring up and remind them that Labour was the only party that could beat the Tories.

Frank Dobson, the Health Secretary, also chose to announce that NHS waiting lists were falling in response to an oral question in the House of Commons from Mr Skinner - who was so surprised to get a positive answer he pretended to look for a pager and insisted he had not asked one of "them planted questions".

"He may criticise policies but he doesn't attack the Prime Minister personally," a Labour source said. "He's not like the other left-wingers who seem to hate the party under Blair as much as they hate the Tories. He's an instinctive loyalist."

Attention has focused on the grassroots candidates in the NEC elections, which have been dogged by allegations of ballot-rigging.

The Blairites now acknowledge that three or four of the Grassroots Alliance, the left-wing slate which includes Tribune editor Mark Seddon and ousted parliamentary candidate Liz Davies, are likely to get on to the ruling body. This would be a snub to the modernisers who mounted a high-profile campaign to get New Labour candidates.

However, party sources indicated last night that Mr Skinner was almost certain to be elected in the ballot of all Labour MPs. They also expect election of Clive Soley, the well-respected chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and Ann Begg, MP.

Mr Blair has the power to appoint three ministers to the NEC. These are likely to be Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary and one of the most popular of Cabinet members with the party, Ian McCartney, the trade minister who successfully negotiated the Government's union White Paper, and Hilary Armstrong, the local government minister.