Brown takes prudent steps to avoid a holy roasting

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The Independent Online

Every month, Tony Blair does battle with Fleet Street's most hostile journalists, at his regular Downing Street press conference. Gordon Brown, meanwhile, prefers a softer soaping.

Every month, Tony Blair does battle with Fleet Street's most hostile journalists, at his regular Downing Street press conference. Gordon Brown, meanwhile, prefers a softer soaping.

The Chancellor launched the Government's recent campaign on child poverty, with a speech to the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development at the Queen Elizabeth conference centre in Westminster.

Having spoken for some time on tackling poverty in the Third World, he earmarked 10 minutes for questions from the floor, which was occupied by an innocuous collection of nuns, priests and Catholic aid workers.

Strangely, though, Brown's spin-doctors insisted that he would only answer questions submitted, in writing, before his speech began. These were then carefully vetted, presumably to make sure that any awkward queries were weeded out.

"It was bizarre: there were people there absolutely itching to ask about the war in Iraq, and about Britain's record as the world's second-largest arms dealer, but none of them got a look in," says one who was present.

"Instead we were treated to a load of anodyne questions about aid budgets. It felt like there was an elephant in the room which nobody was allowed to discuss."

Yesterday, asked if Mr Brown was afraid to tussle with the rapier wit of a few harmless priests and aid workers, a Treasury spokesman neglected to return Pandora's calls.

* HAVING FAILED, along with this mighty newspaper, to prevent the war in Iraq, Lady Antonia Fraser is taking up another noble cause.

She has become a "face" of the campaign for Public Lending Rights, which lobbies to increase the royalties paid to authors by libraries.

"I think that the rates are still very low and have no intention of giving up the fight," she tells me. "We also need to sort out a reciprocal deal; at the moment British libraries are paying rates to foreign authors, but it doesn't work the other way round."

Lady Antonia the author of many a library tome herself, was speaking at yesterday's Evening Standard Theatre Awards.

Her left-wing husband, Harold Pinter, received a commemorative award at the bash. "I didn't know that the Standard was part of the Daily Mail group," he admitted sheepishly.

* CHRIS TARRANT has - pardon the pun - waded into a row engulfing the sedate world of recreational fishing. He has quit as President of the Anglers' Conservation Association, following a controversy involving Bob James (presenter of the TV series Passion for Angling ), a vacuum cleaner and the "theft" of a 90p stamp.

Mr James recently parted company with the ACA after a row that saw him accused of a string of misdemeanours. Tarrant an old chum, becomes the fifth person to resign in protest.

"I believe that several sledgehammers have been used to crack a nut," reads his letter of resignation. "The levelling against (James) of 'crimes' involving a Hoover and the now famous 90p should surely have been settled over a pot of tea."

* CRIKEY! IT'S still all go for Boris Johnson, Pandora's second favourite "shagger" of this parliament.

Neighbours of the custard-haired Spectator editor report that he's been spending time at the family's north London home, having been kicked out by Marina, his wife of 11 years, when the Petsygate affair hit the papers last month.

Sadly, rumours of a reconciliation are premature: "Bozza was called in to babysit for a week while his wife was on holiday in Russia," says a friend. "But when Marina got back, she turfed him out again, and then changed the locks. Getting back into good books will be a marathon, rather than a sprint."

* Johnny Vaughan was one of several Chelsea fans invited to watch his team play Arsenal on Sunday from the luxury of the phone company O2's private box. Since this box is situated slap, bang in the middle of the home supporters' stand, Vaughan's presence caused quite a stir.

"O2 profess to love Arsenal and spend millions being our main sponsor, but they had a box full of Chelsea fans," says one gooner. "It was incredibly offensive and nearly sparked a riot in the Clock End."

Over to O2: "We had an even number of Chelsea and Arsenal fans in that box," insists a spokesman. "The banter is always lively, but it is also well-mannered."