Double setback as Ming calls up more troops

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The Independent Online

* As the Liberal Democrat leadership campaign enters its final fortnight, there are signs of panic in Sir Menzies Campbell's camp.

Having started the odds-on favourite, the likeable Scotsman,right, has fallen behind Chris Huhne in the betting - he's quoted at 6/4 to his rival's 4/7 - and was yesterday the victim of two further body blows.

First, Sir Ming failed to persuade newspapers to print a letter of endorsement signed by eight of his party's MEPs.

Despite being sent across Fleet Street on Wednesday, the note - "we are convinced that Ming Campbell possesses the integrity, credibility and experience to lead the Liberal Democrats" - hadn't been published by last night.

Then an e-mail leaked from Campbell's office. Addressed to staff of supportive MPs, it revealed he's setting up a call centre to lobby members who've yet to fill in their ballot papers.

"We're looking for volunteers to do two-hour shifts or more, with the promise of £10 book and CD vouchers for every shift completed," it reads. "So the more you do, the more you earn.

"Of course, it by no means guarantees that because your bosses are Ming supporters you all are too, but I had to start somewhere..."

Last night, the Campbell camp played down talk of a crisis. "This doesn't indicate any worries at our end," they said.

"The interesting aspect of the MEPs' letter is that they're backing Campbell rather than Chris Huhne, who not long ago was an MEP himself."

* After being "scooped" too many times, Baz Luhrmann is busting a gut to keep his next film project under wraps.

The Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood has been forced to sign a draconian confidentiality contract before starting work on the flick.

He says this follows an incident in 2002, when one of Luhrmann's writers was persuaded to work on Oliver Stone's film Alexander.

Following that defection, Luhrmann was forced to abandon plans for his own "swords and sandals" epic about Alexander the Great.

"I can't tell you what this new film is about, as I've had to sign a secrecy clause," says Harwood.

"Baz told me he got pipped to the post over Alexander because of one of his writers being indiscreet, and won't let himself get his fingers burnt again."

The new flick will be Luhrmann's first since Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge.

According to the rumour-mill, it'll be a period drama set in Australia. Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe are tipped to star.

* The BBC's decision to replace Anna Ford with Sophie Raworth on the One O'Clock News prompted the headline: "Battle of the Auto-cuties".

What does Ford make of the (occasionally facetious) manner in which her successor was heralded?

"Any woman who presents the news is always going to get stick," she tells me. "I've not seen much of Sophie [Raworth] or Natasha [Kaplinsky], as they work different shifts to me, but they're both very good."

As to her future plans, Ford, who was speaking at the centenary of the Everyman's Library, is playing her cards close to her chest.

"I finish in April, and after doing anything for over 30 years you look forward to giving it up," she adds.

"I need a new challenge, and to be frightened again. There are several projects, including writing, but I would not want to write an autobiography as I don't want to betray any confidences." Shame!

* Luciano Pavarotti might have eaten all the pies, but fellow opera singers are anxious to shake off their sedentary image.

To this end, the impresario Raymond Gubbay has equipped stars of his upcoming production of La Bohème with pedometers to record their physical exertions.

Apparently, they're covering an average of 5 miles per day in rehearsals, expected to rise to 10 when they move to the Albert Hall next week.

"This shows that it's all a myth," says company manager Helen Gorton. "Opera stars aren't all big fat people who lounge around eating all day.

"In fact, they're slim and lithe and beautiful. Our lot eat plenty of fruit, and drink gallons of herbal tea."

* Sebastian Faulks famously refused to accept his winner's gong at the Bad Sex Awards in the 1990s.

At the time, literary London blew a resounding raspberry. But evidence has now emerged to suggest that shyness, rather than smugness, was to blame.

According to Faulks's wife, Veronica, the Birdsong author adopts a very English reserve to erotic fiction.

"Our eldest son, William, is 15 and loves reading, but he's not allowed to touch his father's books," she tells me. "The simple reason is that they've all got far too much sex in them."

Looking at the climax of the passage that garnered Faulks's prestigious gong, it's hard to disagree.

"Her ears were filled with the sound of a soft but frantic gasping," it reads. "It was some time before she identified it - as her own."