Is Damien really such a diamond geezer?

* Time was when Damien Hirst pickled his own animals, but these days he's slower to roll up his sleeves.

The father of Brit Art recently unveiled his next big project, a human skull encrusted with 8,500 diamonds called "For the Love of God".

However, it now emerges that he'll be taking only an occasional role in its construction, leaving daily grind to a team from the Bond Street jeweller Bentley and Skinner.

Since the finished "Damien Hirst" will be flogged for tens of millions, some reckon this to be a bit much.

However, those involved in the creation of the artwork have defended his role. "Damien's not sitting on the bench putting the thing together, but he does pop in when he's in town," says the jeweller.

Adds Hirst's spokesman: "I'm not going to tell you how often he goes in there, but he is very closely involved."

* Tony Blair's rebellious Labour Party is about to be caught in the crossfire of a "dirty tricks" campaign that would raise eyebrows in a banana republic.

Angela Eagle, a senior backbencher who sits on the party's ruling National Executive, has accused parliamentary colleagues of "spreading smears" in a bid to remove her from the post.

In an e-mail to fellow Labour MPs, Eagle says political opponents have wrongly accused her of plotting to replace Blair with Gordon Brown.

According to the note, which was sent yesterday, and subsequently passed to Pandora, Eagle, above, blames an attempt to derail her campaign to be re-elected to the National Executive next month.

"I was disappointed to hear that some people have resorted to spreading smears about me in an attempt to damage my chances of re-election," it reads.

"Apparently I've been actively gathering signatures on the infamous non-existent letter calling for the PM to step down, and on the NEC, I 'always vote with the Trots'."

In keeping with her no-nonsense reputation, Eagle issues a lengthy denial to both suggestions, before signing off.

"I am sorry to have to write to you in these terms but I've always made it a rule in my political life to confront smears and false allegations head on."

Colleagues, who take sympathy with her plight, are nonetheless reminded of the feuding that marked John Major's final years in charge of the Tories.

* The starry, artistic partnership between Sir Elton John and Kim Cattrall is on the ropes before it has even got going.

A TV comedy called Him and Us, which was to star Cattrall and be produced by Sir Elton, has been canned, after failing to excite US networks.

It's a shame, since the show, about an ageing gay musician and his entourage, promised to provide a satirical window into life chez Sir Elton.

Speaking to this week'sStage newspaper, Cattrall, who had recorded a pilot episode, blames at least part of its failure on the (occasionally racy) plot line.

"It would have been a great series, but perhaps the subject matter might have been too much for some people," she says.

* Yesterday, I reported that Jack Straw was to retain Chevening, the Kentish weekend residence he commanded as Foreign Secretary.

In fact, Mr Straw has vacated the Inigo Jones pile, and will not be retaining any grace-and-favour properties in his new role as Leader of the House.

As tradition dictates, Margaret Beckett, his replacement at the Foreign Office, is becoming chatelaine of the splendid country house.

Mr Straw never sought to retain such perks. My assertion to the contrary was based on a cack-handed misinterpretation of the Cabinet Office's line on the matter.

Humblest apologies to Mr Straw, and all concerned. It's a shocker on Pandora's part. I'll be wearing a hair shirt for the forseeable future.

* To Jeremy Clarkson's list of bêtes noires - lefties, environmentalists, Piers Morgan, etc. - we can add the animal rights lobby.

On Saturday, the Top Gear controversialist did an unexpected "PA" at the Countryside Alliance's Highclere Rocks fundraiser.

Despite being a keen pheasant shot, Clarkson has never previously stuck his head above the parapet for the pro-hunting pressure group.

"Jeremy took to the stage with Kate Hoey, wearing a jacket made from a number of dead animals," says a CA spokesman. "He gave a rousing speech about how the Government ought to leave country sports alone. It's the first time he's done something like this for us."

Oh dear. I sense trouble approaching. In the past, the BBC hasn't taken kindly to stars who publicly support the green welly brigade.

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