Friday 22 March 1996
They say one of the first indications of an opposition party being taken seriously is when foreign governments start having secret dealings with it. In which case I have news that may alarm Mr Major a little. A confidential fax has come into my possession in which a first secretary at the American embassy gave Labour's Northern Ireland spokeswoman, Mo Mowlam (above), precise details of Gerry Adams itinerary in America earlier this month. With Ms Mowlam also visiting America, an unplanned collision between the two could have been embarrassing.
Perhaps, with Tony Blair visiting President Clinton next month, the Americans are keen to build closer relations with Her Majesty's Opposition. Perhaps they think it won't be Her Majesty's Opposition much longer.
I wondered aloud to the sender of the fax at the American embassy whether this was true, but he took fright and said he couldn't say anything at all about the fax and then rang off. He must have had another appointment. Dr Mowlam's office was also otherwise engaged. I suppose secret faxes come under the heading of "special relationship".
Sorry, that's the wrong sort of excuse
British Rail's excuses - or should that be Railtrack's excuses - for the absence of trains grow ever more impressive. The West Anglia (whose sense of geography is as bad as everything else) Great Northern line into King's Cross has had a particularly shabby couple of months, which has been acknowledged by posters of apology in the stations. But nothing - not falling leaves, not the wrong sort of snow, not even slippery rails - has topped the excuse offered by the harassed ticket clerk at the village station in Knebworth this week. "I can't say when the next train to London will be I'm afraid. Someone has stolen the overhead cables."
Is this the politics of plurality?
Robin Cook, the Shadow Cabinet's chief advocate of electoral reform, is also in charge of Labour's policy-making machine. So Labour's electoral reformers were keen to hear from him at their annual get-together on Wednesday.
But he had little to report. So far, Labour promises only to hold a referendum on changing the voting system. He could not comment on reports that Tony Blair was moving towards support for electoral reform, he said, except to remark that Peter Mandelson, the MP for Hartlepool, was a "proper and adequate metaphor" for the Labour leader. And Mr Mandelson has just announced his partial conversion to the cause. (It is as "a proper and adequate metaphor for the Labour leader" that Eagle Eye shall henceforth refer to Mr Mandelson.)
Mr Cook said that none of the details of the referendum commitment had been decided, such as whether there should be one referendum or two (one on the principle of change and one to choose which system). But Labour's domestic policy committee had made one firm decision, he revealed.
"The only policy we have is that we will call them referendums rather than referenda," he said.
In the family way
As exclusively predicted in these here columns two months ago, Peter Gummer (below) has moved from being the man in charge of the Arts Council's lottery board to being the chairman of the Royal Opera House. To put it another way, the man who recommended that the Royal Opera House receive pounds 55m will now be in charge of the board that is in charge of spending it.
I gather that the Prime Minister personally approved the appointment of Mr Gummer, brother of John Selwyn. And, as Peter Gummer told me reassuringly: "I was chairman of a non-executive group at the Arts Council. It was the council as a whole which actually made the decisions." I only regret there is not a new series of The House on television to record the dramas of this non-executive transfer.
Let them eat beef
On the menu of the press gallery canteen at the House of Commons yesterday: roast sirloin of beef, pounds 1.70; the House authorities are certainly determined to make the cynical reporters eat their words. And it looks like they are. "It's going very well," says a source close to the kitchen.
Scientists may have doubts about the Turin Shroud, but who could argue with the Daily Star? This week the tabloid has eschewed more temporal matters, such as the safety of beef, to put a graphic purporting to contain a hidden picture of Jesus on its front page.
This visually enlightening experience is only supposed to work if you stare hard at the picture for 30 seconds then concentrate your eyes on a white surface. Slowly, the face of Jesus will appear to you.
It has left Star readers with a "tingling sensation" and some spoke of feeling of an incredible warmth. It even sent Elizabeth Barret from North London hurtling back to church after 10 years of exile. She says: "I was a lapsed Roman Catholic for 10 years, but now I keep seeing his face everywhere." Paul Shorrocks from Blackpool says: "I almost choked on my cornflakes when I saw it."
Sadly, there may be less to it than meets the eye. Dr John Tiffany from the Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology at Oxford University tells me the picture may be no more than an optical illusion. "It is simply playing on the ability of the eye to saturate an image," he says. "I remember something similar in one of my Boy Wonderland books."
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