Clarke brings a new spin-doctor to help his war against terror

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The Independent Online

Take Charles Clarke, the jug-eared bruiser who as Home Secretary has been handed the poisoned chalice of getting Labour's controversial new anti-terrorism legislation onto the statute book.

After howls of derision from across the media, judiciary, and members of both the Lords and Commons, Clarke has decided to call in a full-time spin-doctor to mend the Bill's reputation.

He is John Toker, a former head of news at the Home Office, who has been moved to a newly-created role at the Cabinet Office. It has the Orwellian-sounding title "director of counter-terrorism communications."

If Toker succeeds in his new task, it won't be the first time he's been indispensable to a home secretary.

Under his former master, David Blunkett, Toker was one of two civil servants who made headlines by using their lunch hour to meet Kimberly Quinn, in the week that the affair between the two was about to be made public.

Precise details of that meeting have never come to light, and it was surprisingly absent from Sir Alan Budd's official report on the affair, which was published a few months later.

Yesterday, Toker wasn't returning calls about his new job. The Cabinet Office would only say: "After the London bombs, we needed a position dedicated to counter-terrorism."

* Having painted one old queen, Her Majesty Elizabeth II, Rolf Harris will this week start a portrait of another.

The jazz legend George Melly - who once admitted: "I'm trisexual: I'll try anything sexual" - will sit for Harris at his home in Camden, north London, this week.

"That Australian man off the telly's coming to draw me," said Melly, at the recent launch of his autobiography. "You know, the one with the kangaroos, Rolf Harris. He's the most popular artist in Britain."

Diana Melly, the long-suffering wife whose own colourful memoirs were launched this year, says Harris has been pursuing Melly for some time.

"George used to be rather wary, but then they met at a party and Rolf was nice to him so of course he now thinks Rolf is wonderful.

"I'm not sure whether he'll paint a cartoon or something traditional. Will we have to pay for it? I'm not sure how the deal works, to be honest."

* A few years back, Alan Bennett turned down an honorary degree from Oxford University in protest at its decision to accept a donation from Rupert Murdoch.

"This refusal isn't for my own private moral satisfaction," he recalls. "Murdoch is a bully and should be stood up to publicly. However puny the gesture, it needs to be in the open."

So far, so high-minded. But the retiring playwright, right, isn't always so hostile towards the Australian-born media tycoon: at the weekend, he spoke at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, on a platform sponsored by The Times.

"Alan still claims to dislike Murdoch," says a literary source. "However, he's also got a book to promote, and knows that each copy he flogs means £20 in his publisher's back pocket." Canny!

* David Blunkett sadly failed to draw blood at his showdown with Piers Morgan yesterday, but - thanks to Pandora - he did see the former Mirror editor on the rack at least once.

Reader Iain Hollingshead won my competition to find a "killer question" to ask Blunkett's adversary : "Do you regret being so nasty to D-list celebrities now that you've become one?"

Morgan replied in the affirmative: "It's a fair cop. I did think about that the other day when I was interviewing Abi Titmuss, and she said, 'how dare you take the piss out of me when you're off the scale'.

"I think D-list is a fair reflection of my status in life."

Mr Hollingshead wins a bottle of Dom Perignon 1998 for his pains. Blunkett - a wine buff - will be highly envious.

* Another day, another pillar of the arts world finds himself in trouble with the animal rights brigade.

Last week, Kenneth Branagh arrived at the venue of his new West End play, Ducktastic, to find a troupe of vegetarians protesting against the use of trained ducks in his show. Now the graffiti artist Banksy faces similar treatment.

Banksy's new exhibition Crude Oils, in a west London gallery, has upset the charity CavyRescue - which campaigns on behalf of rodents - because it features rats running freely around the space, representing "the triumph of the little people".

"Things like this only undermine all the hard work we and other animal charities are trying to achieve," says a spokesman. "This is not art, it's cruelty."