Hands off our seats - Balls warned by Labour veterans

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The Independent Online

* Musical chairs up in Yorkshire after the news that the Normanton constituency of Ed Balls, Gordon Brown's best mate and abacus counter, will be abolished - with neighbouring MPs tussling not to be the one left standing up when the record stops.

Wakefield Council has finally abandoned its £175,000 legal challenge to the decision, leaving Balls, pictured, looking around for a new seat close to wife Yvette Cooper, MP for Pontefract and Castleford.

"Gordon will ensure Ed has a seat for the next election," a Labour source tells me. "The sharks are circling around George Mudie [Leeds East] and Barry Sheerman [Huddersfield]. They're in their sixties.

"But whether these MPs can be persuaded to go easily is another matter. I expect the men in question will receive a quiet word in the coming months from one of Gordon's people."

Mudie is having none of it. "I've told them I'll be standing," he says, "God-willing and constituency-willing, that is." He laughs: "Colin Challen's seat is closer to Ed Balls than mine is. Or ring Barry Sheerman, he's probably in his late eighties by now."

Challen plans to stand again for his seat, and the energetic Sheerman, 66, delivers a firm "hands-off".

He insists: "I'm certainly not standing down. I shall go on and on. I'm one of the most active parliamentarians and will stay that way for a long time."

Might Balls be persuaded to make the 50-mile journey to Hull, home of John Prescott, should a seat become available there?

* Richard E Grant is the latest thespian to get crabby about the twitter of mobile phone calls in the theatre.

On Tuesday night, Reg launched a Withnail-like tirade against disruptive audience members while presenting his weekly slot on Classic FM about great movie composers.

"I think beheading would be in line for what I'm after," Grant said."Mild electrocution and the stocks should be brought back and the offenders left in the lobby for people to throw tomatoes at. Mobile phones should be banned inside theatres."

Uncompromising words, but he's not the first to turn purple over the issue.

Grant's Withnail co-star Richard Griffiths has twice ejected audience members for receiving repeated phone calls, telling one woman: "The 750 people here would be fully justified in suing you for ruining their afternoon." Hear, hear!

* The actress Maureen Lipman has received vile letters telling her she "should be a lampshade" after defending Israel's war in Lebanon.

The abuse seems to have concreted her opinions, going by her comments at the Cartoon Museum on Tuesday, where she launched a collection of poems she wrote while her husband Jack Rosenthal was dying of cancer (royalties going to the International Myeloma Foundation).

"I want to restore balance to the debate," she tells me. "What is this fixation with Israel's 'crimes'? Why don't they judge Israel by the same standard they use for the rest of the world? It's not us planting fucking bombs in Turkey."

She adds: "What about taking a look at Uganda? Zimbabwe? Burma? A rose is a rose."

* Cyanide pills in the macchiato over at Guardian Media Group.

Last week, The Guardian published an article attacking Veronica Lee, employed at its sister title The Observer.

The author, Tim Fountain, accused Lee of "inaccurately reporting" a nude scene in his play Midnight Cowboy, and compared her to champion puritan Mary Whitehouse.

"He laid into me, yet no one from The Guardian called me before it went in," she says. "It was totally unprofessional."

Sure enough, Lee chased her complaint to the door of the managing editor's office and yesterday a retaliatory letter appeared.

"Tim Fountain is livid and wants them to give him a reply," she adds. "If he gets one I'll demand another. Bring on the table tennis." Tin hats, chaps.

* Liberal Democrats are trying to limit the amount of fuel sloshing around their potentially explosive conference in two weeks, where Ming "The Vase" Campbell will battle for headline space with the returning Charlie Kennedy.

In a move bound to reaffirm the party's green credentials (as well as lead to unkind muttering about sandal-wearing hippies), the official Lib Dem website urges those off to Brighton to consider car sharing.

Wondering whether the service receives the Dear Leader's personal endorsement, Pandora calls Campbell's spokesman to see if Ming and Charlie will share a backseat, swapping Sudoku puzzles and Werther's Originals on the way down. "I honestly don't know anything about any travel arrangements yet," he says. There's still time!