'Bruiser' Reid meets his match in Commons fight

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* John Reid has perhaps unfairly been billed as the only remaining Cabinet "bruiser" with any of his credibility left.

It is, therefore, appropriate that the Defence Secretary should be caught up in the most unseemly public squabble in Westminster's recent history.

Late on Tuesday, the members' lobby of the Commons saw a heated altercation between Reid and Mike Penning, the Tory MP for Hemel Hempstead.

Accounts of exactly what took place differ, according to whom you believe. But one thing's for sure: the foul-mouthed encounter goes some way beyond common parliamentary "handbags". "It was like pub chucking-out time on a Friday," reports one witness. "They were squaring-up, jabbing each other in the chest, and turning the air blue.

"Penning kept repeating: 'Don't talk to me about the fucking army; I've been in the fucking army.' Then he turned to John Prescott, who'd stepped in, and offered him out with the words: 'I'm not one of your fucking Tory toffs'."

The row apparently involved a decision by Reid not to provide military cover during an impending fire strike in Penning's constituency, home of the Buncefield oil depot."

Although Reid's office wasn't available for comment yesterday, hard man Penning had no regrets.

"I took them both on, Reid and Prescott," he told me. "I said, in no uncertain terms, that I wasn't prepared to have my constituents used as political pawns. It was an argument I won. I thoroughly enjoyed it."

* The underwear model Caprice Bourret is behind the latest round of gossip to sweep Theatreland.

A couple of months back, the top-heavy American announced she was making her acting debut, in a play called Road to Nirvana.

Strangely, when the curtain lifted on the show, at the Kings Head Theatre in Islington this week, she was nowhere to be seen.

Tongues are already wagging, but - despite Caprice's volatile reputation - a spokesman has dismissed talk of artistic tantrums.

"What actually happened was that, once she was shown the intense rehearsal schedule, she realised she couldn't commit the time," I'm told. "The cast rehearsed for a month, and Caprice had loads of other things on her plate. There's no hard feelings, though."

Still, it's a shame for Bourret's co-stars. They include Shaun Williamson, the chap who played Barry in EastEnders.

* Paperbacks are about to fly between two of literary London's hottest young Asian novelists: Zadie Smith and Nirpal Dhaliwal.

Yesterday, Dhaliwal, above right, derided Time magazine's decision to dub Smith, below right, one of the world's "hundred most influential" people.

In an article for www.thefirstpost.co.uk, he noted: "She's a cutey whose novel [On Beauty] featured a hot black girl offering her wrong bottom to a middle-aged white man. In calling Zadie 'influential', Time actually means 'gives old white boys the horn'.

"Go to any black neighbourhood and ask the sisters if Zadie's influenced them... You can measure her (ir)relevance in the number of slaps they give you."

Cynics might accuse Dhaliwal of chasing headlines: he does, after all, have his own book to promote.

* The actor Rupert Wickham is recovering from a bruising encounter with the electoral machine of the Tory party.

Last week, he wrote to neighbours in Holland Park, urging them to vote Green in protest at a council decision to flog a local school playground.

Cue a threatening letter from one Jonathan Fraser-Howells, the local Conservative Party agent.

"It claimed Rupert's letter was illegal, because it didn't carry the name and address of the printer," I'm told. "During election time, this can apparently land you with a £5,000 fine.

"Rupert and his wife, Janie (Dee, the actress) educate their children locally and believe they've every right to protest. This letter has left them completely gob-smacked. It smacks of paranoia."

* I do hope that Jonathan Aitken won't be forced to reach for that trusty sword of truth all over again.

In an otherwise friendly interview with today's Press Gazette, the fallen MP is accused of giving an artificial lift to his greying locks.

"The only visible residue of his long-forgotten political vanity and propensity to tell porkies is his incongruously burnished sweep of hair," it reads. "It has clearly enjoyed a deep dunking in an unholy font of dye."

In the manner of Gerhard Schröder, Aitken yesterday denied using hair-dye. However, under stiff cross-examination by this column, he admitted to a lesser charge. "I don't use any dye at all," he said. "However, I do use one of those shampoos that helps make your hair sparkle."

pandora@independent.co.uk

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