New Labour hedge their bets on a Democrat future

By Guy Adams
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The Independent Online

There are few things Tony Blair treasures more than his "special relationship" with George W Bush. Interesting, then, to learn that he's been getting cosy with one of the US President's foremost rivals, the rising Democrat star Mark Warner.

Warner, right, who hopes to stand for President in 2008, visited London last month, hoping to hold talks with prominent British politicians.

Amazingly, for someone who has no formal role - he stood down as Governor of Virginia in January - it now emerges that he met with first Tony Blair, then Gordon Brown, then Jack Straw, and finally Charles Clarke.

Not one of the meetings was reported at the time, and all remain absent from British government internet sites. Instead, details slipped out in Warner's newsletter to supporters, circulated last week.

It is highly unusual for a foreign opposition politician to be accorded the honour of meetingsuch a starry line-up, and even more strange for details to remain hush-hush.

However, Downing Street deny any cover-up Warner's visit, saying simply: "The Prime Minister meets a lot of people, and it's not unusual for him to meet people who are in that kind of situation."

Either way, Bush won't be the only chum of our Prime Minister to be dismayed at news of the trip.

Hillary Clinton is Warner's chief rival for the Democrat Presidential nomination. She'll now have every right to feel miffed, too.

Hannibal fans kept hungry

Mystery surrounds the return of popular fiction's best-known serial killer, Hannibal Lecter.

He's due to be the subject of a "prequel" by his reclusive creator Thomas Harris, with the working title Behind the Mask.

It was originally scheduled for release before Christmas, but publishers Heinemann quietly rescheduled for late February following unspecified delays.

Now we're into March, and still no sign of the book, which should be a shoo-in for the bestseller lists. Harris hasn't submitted a manuscript, and sources talk darkly about writer's block.

Meanwhile, the delay is causing problems in Hollywood, where Anthony Hopkins, left, has now decided not to appear in a planned film of the novel.

"We hope to get the book out in April now, but you're right, we haven't got hold of the manuscript yet," admit Heinmann.

"However, this often happens with Thomas Harris. We don't normally have much contact with him, but when the manuscript does arrive, we hope to get it printed and into the shops in about a week."

* Mohamed Fayed's relationship with his marbles is open to debate, but he's certainly making efforts to be taken seriously.

The Harrods owner has just employed the world's poshest firm of spooks, Kroll, to investigate claims that his son, Dodi, and Princess Diana were murdered as part of an MI5 plot.

Investigators have also been instructed to keep an eye on the official investigation into the affair, being conducted by the former police chief, Lord Stevens.

"Kroll's people paid a visit to Paris recently to examine the tunnel where the crash took place and speak to some of the witnesses," I'm told.

"Take the mickey out of Fayed if you like, but more and more people now think he's on to something."

Kroll specialise in helping colourful tycoons: in 2003, they were hired by John Magnier to compile a dossier on Sir Alex Ferguson, during a messy row over the racehorse Rock of Gibraltar.

* Cherie Blair needs my help. No, your eyes aren't deceiving you: our First Lady has asked Pandora for a favour.

On Thursday, the PM's wife hosts a fundraising dinner in London for her charity Rights and Humanity.

It celebrates International Women's Day, and involves wining and dining with Cherie's celebrity chums: Lesley Garrett, Heather McCartney, and the celebrity chef Ross Burden.

Anyway, the organisers have a problem. With just three days to go - and despite the stellar line-up - they haven't sold enough tickets.

"There's quite a few places left, and we really, really need to fill the room," I'm told. "Any chance of a plug?"

* For Pandora, sipping cocktails and attempting to snog celebrities is all in a day's work; for the rest of you, it's a rare treat.

With at least half an eye on this fact, reader Declan Duggan purchased a night out with Pandora, in our Christmas Charity auction.

We attended an event guaranteed to go down in the annals of Theatreland history: the West End debut of Abi Titmuss.

Not only did we chat to Titmuss - she's happy to disrobe for future stage roles, by the way - we also met her on-off boyfriend, Lee Sharpe.

He offered a scoop: Despite tabloid reports that they've separated, he's been helping Abi to learn her lines.

A good job, too. On the big night, Titmuss only forgot them once, down from three times the night before.