Withheld: Blair refuses to name his 1,900 best friends

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The Independent Online

* For a man who talks so earnestly about "open" government, Tony Blair is strangely reluctant to allow the workings of his own private office to fall under the spotlight.

* For a man who talks so earnestly about "open" government, Tony Blair is strangely reluctant to allow the workings of his own private office to fall under the spotlight.

In January, Pandora reported that the Prime Minister had marked the festive season by sending a total of 1,900 official Christmas cards, up from 1,600 in 2003, at a cost of several hundred pounds to the taxpayer.

Intrigued by this statistic - and wondering who all Blair's new friends might be - I made a formal request to see the names of the recipients, under the new Freedom of Information Act.

Sadly, Downing Street has refused to play ball: yesterday, they wrote to say the list was exempt from disclosure, because it contains "personal information", which cannot be revealed because of data protection laws.

It's a traditional excuse for Blair to use when he wants to cover something up. And it doesn't work: last month, Lib Dem MP Norman Lamb overturned a similar ruling to secure a list of dinner guests invited to Chequers in the past two years.

"I suspect Downing Street's defence won't wash here either, or it would have been the basis for denying me a list of names too," Lamb tells me.

With that in mind, Pandora has launched a formal appeal. Let's hope that - unlike Lamb's - mine takes less than 18 months to process.

* FORTY YEARS after she achieved fame in Mary Poppins , Dame Julie Andrews is to cast a critical eye over the new musical about London's most famous nanny.

The screen siren will this month fly to the capital - using an aeroplane, rather than an umbrella - to attend a gala performance of the West End show.

The visit is a signal honour for Julian Fellowes, who reworked the script. "A lot of people have been waiting for Julie to snipe at the show, but she's been tremendously generous about it from the beginning," he tells me.

"I'm old enough to remember the books, but for anyone of my wife's age or younger, Julie Andrews quite simply is Mary Poppins."

In a neat role-reversal, Fellowes - who won an Oscar for the script of Gosford Park - recently crossed the Atlantic to promote his own novel Snobs : "It seems to have done the trick," he adds. "It's a bestseller over there now."

* JAMIE OLIVER is back in the nation's good books, with his campaign to improve the calorie-ridden junk that passes for school dinners.

Not everyone is singing his praises, though. The TV producer Pat Llewellyn - who "discovered" Oliver when he was working at the River Café - is said to be irked by the chef's endorsement of Sainsbury's.

The reason, I'm told, is that Llewellyn invented the "Naked Chef" concept on which the supermarket's adverts are modelled.

"Although Pat doesn't want any money, she does feel a bit peeved," says a chum. "She's no fan of supermarkets, so some of his ads - particularly the one endorsing salmon farming - fly in the face of what she stands for."

* A SCALP! Last month, Pandora revealed that the UK Independence Party intended to field a convicted criminal, one Damien O'Connor, as its candidate in Manchester Central.

Now I gather that Mr O'Connor - who was "done" for a £9,000 housing benefit fraud in 2000 - has decided to stand down after photocopies of this column began circulating amongst party members in the North West.

"Mr O'Connor decided to resign as a candidate in the interests of the UKIP, following adverse press coverage," says a party spokesman. "We appreciate the gesture, and are confident he will remain a valued member of UKIP."

It's reassuring to know he's still a man they can do business with.

* The accident-prone English National Opera has been dealt a blow. Two of its foremost divas, Giselle Allen and Stephanie Marshall, have simultaneously fallen pregnant, forcing them to pull out of a forthcoming revival of Cosi fan Tutte.

A search is now on for suitable replacements to take the pivotal roles of Fiordiligi and Dorabella. Time is not on the ENO's side, though: rehearsals are already underway, and the show is scheduled to hit the stage in May.

"If the truth be told, we're in a bit of a panic," says a source. "It's ironic really, because a rough translation of the opera's title is 'Women are all like that'."

pandora@independent.co.uk www.independent.co.uk/pandora

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