New boy Mandelson faces a baptism of fire in Brussels

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The Independent Online

* If Peter Mandelson thought he was in for an easy life now he's left Westminster for the comfortable office suite of a European Commissioner, he'd better think again.

* If Peter Mandelson thought he was in for an easy life now he's left Westminster for the comfortable office suite of a European Commissioner, he'd better think again.

In the next few days, all 25 incoming commissioners must appear before the European Parliament, so that their appointments can be formally ratified. Depending on their particular job, they will be cross-examined by a select committee of MEPs.

As luck would have it, Mandelson has been put in charge of trade, meaning he will come before the international trade committee. That includes two potential adversaries: the Tory Robert William Sturdy, and one of the UK Independence Party's foremost attack dogs, Nigel Farage.

Brussels is awash with rumours that the grilling, which takes place at 1pm on Monday, will turn nasty. "The issue of whether, given his sackings from the Cabinet, he's a fit and proper person to take this job is likely to be raised," I'm told. "It's a fair question, and one that he'll have trouble dodging."

Mandy is also likely to be asked if his Brazilian boyfriend Reinaldo da Silva is to claim the £340-a-month "spouses allowance".

Yesterday, Sturdy was keeping his counsel on the meeting. Farage for his part, said gamely: "Asking Mr Mandelson about his sense of propriety is pointless: he's going to be a European Commissioner."

* THERE WAS high excitement in academia yesterday, following reports that Madonna has enrolled at Oxford University.

According to The Sun newspaper, the pop star is to take a degree in English Lit, through a "distance learning" programme, over the internet.

"Having pretty much conquered the world of pop, Madge is now set to read Literature at Oxford University," it claimed breathlessly.

"The Material Girl is to further her knowledge of British literary greats such as Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen by studying for a Batchelor of Arts qualification."

All of which came as news to the university. "We don't actually do online degree courses, so there can't be any truth in this," said a spokesman. But it's great publicity."

Madonna's agent, meanwhile, tells me: "As far as I know, this is rubbish."

* TO THE dismay of their image-makers, the Royal Family's support for hunting is to be thrust into the spotlight.

On Saturday, the Beaufort Hunt meets at Shipton Moyne, a stone's throw from Highgrove, the Prince of Wales's country seat. The Prince, below, may or may not turn out, but the hunt is almost certain to cover his land.

"Charles has built some enticing 'tiger traps' which are perfect for trying out a new horse," says one follower. "We'll be on best behaviour, though: he throws a massive wobbly if any gates are left open."

Earlier this week, the Beaufort's master Ian Farquhar - a chum of the Prince - saw his daughter Emma arrested, for disrupting Tony Blair's speech in Brighton.

* JOHN HUMPHRYS interviewed Tony Blair on Wednesday, for the first time in three years.

Some say this marked the end of a boycott from Downing Street, who think Jim Naughtie's a softer touch. But Naughtie denies any stitch up, saying he's just as formidable as his co-host.

Former Today colleague Sue MacGregor sides with the conspiracy theorists, though. "Of course Blair's been avoiding John," she said, at the opening of the Wallace Collection's Francois Boucher exhibition.

"You only have to look at how long it's been. I was in the studio last time, and after the interview finished Alastair Campbell said a very rude word which ended in 'ing'."

* In a move that may endanger what's left of her dignity, Christine Hamilton is publishing her autobiography. The book, For Better For Worse, recently thudded onto publisher Charles Robson's desk at roughly twice the length it ought to be.

"He told me I should start by getting rid of words that I had over used, like 'crumbs,' 'hysterical' and 'perilously'," says Hamilton. "But quite often, I was hysterical, so it's the right word to use."

As to the book's content, she adds: "There are new and exciting revelations. I've slept with some very interesting people. I never committed adultery, but you'll be surprised at the names I can drop from my past." What a prospect!