Clarke makes light of the Blair affair (off the record)

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The Independent Online

When it recently emerged that Sir Ian Blair had secretly taped a private telephone conversation between himself and the Attorney General, political punters believed the Metropolitan Police Commissioner might have finally reached the last of his many lives.

But after a swift apology from Sir Ian, his boss, Charles Clarke, then declared the matter to be closed.

But in a bizarre twist to the saga, the Home Secretary now finds himself under fire from opponents, following remarks made during a lunch for women lobby journalists on Tuesday, when he made light of the affair.

Clarke raised several eyebrows during his speech when he curiously claimed that the recording of phone calls had been nothing more than "a very minor point".

He then went on to say that while he didn't "think taping was a very good idea", it was "not an extraordinary thing".

"Some of us thought it was a bit odd," remarks one hack. "Considering there was so much clamouring for Sir Ian's head just last week, it seemed slightly inappropriate for the Home Secretary to be treating such a contentious matter so lightly."

The Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, who has long highlighted concerns about phone-tapping, is among those incensed by Clarke's remarks.

"If his attitude is as cavalier to people's privacy as it seems, it confirms the concerns we already have about him," he tells me.

* For any fans out there of Mark "The Mack" Morrison who feared the R 'n' B star might have mellowed during his long spell in the musical wilderness, fear not.

The Leicester-based rapper launches his comeback album, "Innocent Man", in Brighton tomorrow night and shows no sign of losing his taste for controversy.

For the launch, he's enlisted the help of the former boxer and convicted rapist "Iron" Mike Tyson to be the compère for the evening.

"They're old friends," explains a publicist for Morrison. "Mark heard that Mike was in the UK, and seeing as they were going to hook up anyway he asked him to help out with the party.

"I'm not exactly sure how they know each other but apparently they go way back."

It may be that the two bonded over their mutual time spent behind bars. Morrison was sent to Wormwood Scrubs in 1998 after a display of admirable bare-faced cheek when he dispatched a "looky-likey" to do community service in his place.

* As everybody knows, Andrew Lloyd Webber has been getting up the upturned snouts of theatre snobs for decades, but his latest ruse has got the luvvies fuming.

Not long ago, the Cats composer, below, announced he was holding X-Factor-style auditions to cast the part of Maria in his forthcoming production of The Sound Of Music.

The idea has enraged the acting community. In an interview with The Stage, the West End veteran Miriam Karlin fumes: "I think it is outrageous that there are young women coming out of three years' training, and possibly a great deal of professional work, and for them to [potentially] go through the humiliating process of being judged by the public."

Understandably, Lloyd Webber remains defiant. "I have helped discover some of the best performers in the business, and the thought that I would seek out anything else is insulting," he tells me.

* As David Blunkett will tell you, when Chris Grayling begins asking questions heads start to roll.

The Conservative spokesman for Transport took the prized scalp of the then pensions secretary over his directorship of DNA Bioscience late last year.

And he's at it again. Hot on the heels of Labour's loan from Capita boss Rod Aldridge, Grayling has tabled questions to every government department demanding to know how much business has been conducted between them and the company over the past five years.

"This is a major government contractor providing financial support to the Government," says a defiant Grayling. "I want to know what the extent of the relationship is."

* The Diana memorial fountain has been copping even more flak than usual this week.

Chief among the hecklers is the Tory chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, Edward Leigh, who's branded the memorial "ill-conceived and ill-executed".

But his comments come as no surprise to Serpentine regulars.

"Leigh's a member of the Serpentine Swimming club, who swim in Hyde Park near the memorial, so of course he's bound to say that," says one. "It's no big secret the club's absolutely detested everything about the fountain from the off."

Taking the charge in good humour, Leigh insists: "I'm quite open about my view. On a summer's day, it can look quite nice, but in the winter it looks little better than an open drain."