Tory staff look grim at the prospect of a move up north

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The Independent Online

With Tory coffers looking less than flush, Pandora hears that private talks have been taking place about relocating scores of administrative staff to the West Midlands by 2007.

The plan has been discussed by the chairman, Francis Maude, pictured, and members of the party board. It comes just weeks after it was reported that the Tories are likely to send the rest of the staff back to their old Smith Square Central Office, which they left as part of a very public "modernisation" drive before the election, but have been unable to sell.

"A lot of employees don't necessarily need to be in London," insists one official. "It makes financial sense to move our administrative staff to a less expensive part of the country, while keeping our political staff in SW1."

Unsurprisingly, the idea is proving controversial - not least with the employees who face the decision of moving home or leaving their posts.

"While a lot us think a move north would make perfect sense, there's going to plenty of staff up in arms if they end up being uprooted like this," concedes my source.

Meanwhile, a party spokeswoman yesterday insisted that the press office was "not aware" of any plans to re-locate staff.

* When actors are a bit hard up, they do all sorts of things for extra cash. Top of the list come obscure advertisements and voicing the characters in video games.

It's bad news, then, for creditors of the late Marlon Brando who died £11m in debt. For just before he died, Brando recorded the voice of his famous big screen alter-ego Don Vito Corleone for an Electronic Arts video game. The game is due out next year but, despite plenty of hype, the great man's voice looks unlikely to be used after all.

"They only had him in for one session and didn't get through all the lines," I'm told. "Then most of what they did manage to record isn't useable because of an oxygen tank that he was breathing through at the time."

To get round the problem, EA has found a Brando impersonator.

"He's not bad," adds my mole. "But then who can't do a decent impression of the Godfather?"

* The former BBC weatherman Michael Fish is ready to press ahead with his libel action against the author David Benedictus, unless he deletes a passage in his forthcoming memoirs alleging that the forecaster was once part of a "wife-swapping" ring in East Twickenham.

Since Pandora revealed that the book will make such claims, Mr Fish's solicitors - the fearsome firm of Clintons - have been in touch with me to request more details.

"He shares the view that the fictitious allegations raised by David Benedictus constitutes a fairly serious libel," says Mr Fish's solicitor.

Other celebrities whose acquaintance Benedictus claims include Ralph Feinnes, Stephen Berkoff, Trevor Nunn and Judi Dench. They too might want to glance over the book's manuscript to see whether they have cause for complaint.

* I bring you news of industrial espionage at the heart of Fleet Street. The Times yesterday produced a new-look diary, cunningly mocked up to replicate The Guardian's soon-to-be-launched "Berliner" format - already known as the "Betamax". It's an admirable use of space - and it has been a long time in the making.

Some six months ago, a market researcher for The Guardian was approached by an undercover Times reporter, who tried to buy an advance copy of the "Betamax" for a large sum.

The Guardian has wasted no time in issuing a statement condemning its rival's action. "The Times is obviously in a total panic," said a spokesman. "Even The Sun hands back stolen documents these days." Pandora stands proudly above such undignified squabbling.

* Ann Widdecombe has lost weight, dyed her hair and become a television personality. But she is mostly famous these days as a battle-axe and as a devout Roman Catholic.

It is a brave man, then, who suggests that there may be fault lines in her Christian faith - and an unexpected one.

Step forward Father Michael Seed, who converted Widdy, as well as a crop of other smart Catholics, including the Duchess of Kent and the former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore.

"She was a much better Christian before her conversion, without question," Father Seed tells me. "She was much more holy. Catholicism can have that effect on people. They loosen up. It's more global, more anonymous than Anglicanism. She has changed enormously and become much more tolerant and broad minded."

After a considered pause, he adds: "She would kill me for saying that."