Andy McSmith's Diary: Looking like Rasputin helps - ex-Tory whip beats Labour's Chris Bryant to Russian job


There were chaotic scenes in a Commons committee room today, when more than 200 MPs crammed in to cast their votes. It was so crowded that some grabbed handfuls of ballot papers off the table, to pass to those at the back.

They were contesting the chairmanship of one of the all-parliamentary groups which normally struggle to get more than 10 people to a meeting. However, this was the all-Party Parliamentary Russia Group, and one of the candidates for the chairmanship was the Labour MP Chris Bryant.

As well as having an abrasive style of arguing that annoys a lot of Tory MPs, Mr Bryant has a track record as one of the most relentless critics of the Putin regime. The Tory whips were determined that the chairmanship should go to John Randall, a former whip who has a beard like Rasputin and speaks Russian. My spies say that the room was stuffed with whips and ministers, including at least one Cabinet minister. A Tory MP was heard to say as he emerged: “It’s like the Crimea in there.” Randall won by 126 to 96.

Miliband takes a break

Standing in the queue in a Commons café to buy a lunch, I was a trifle surprised to be joined by Ed Miliband, also on the hunt for a snack. Normally at that time on a Wednesday, he is descending from the adrenaline rush of Prime Minister’s Questions, but with David Cameron away in Israel, he was excused their weekly joust. “My favourite day of the week is Wednesday when there’s no PMQs” he said cheerfully.

Firing shot at Syria

Ed’s day started well when his old enemy, the former First Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson, told the BBC’s Today programme that the leadership he had shown by not committing Labour to holding an EU referendum was a “game changer”. Mandelson was not always so supportive. It was with him in mind that Miliband once pointedly remarked: “All of us believe in dignity in retirement.”

But the olive branch from one old Blairite was followed later by a barbed comment from another, when Labour MP John Woodcock raised the subject of Syria: “We must all bear responsibility for our shameful failure to intervene.” Last August, Woodcock favoured taking action against the Assad regime but voted loyally with Miliband against rushing in, not anticipating that David Cameron, having been defeated, would then rule out action altogether.

Fruitful October for peers

Summer is the lean season for those troughers in ermine, peers who have been embroiled in scandal but who cannot be stopped from going in and out of the House of Lords to claim the £300-a-day tax-free attendance allowance.

In October, there were 16 sitting days, and figures show that Baroness Uddin was there on each of them, thereby pocketing the full £4,800. Baroness Uddin’s membership of the Lords was suspended in 2010 when she had to repay £125,000 worth of expenses she had wrongly claimed.

One of the first Lords to be suspended was Lord Taylor of Blackburn, a Labour peer caught in a newspaper sting, in which he appeared to be willing to use his influence in exchange for cash, who excused his behaviour then by saying that he was “easily confused”. But not so confused that he failed to claim the full £4,800.

The ex-Tory leader of Essex County Council, Lord Hanningfield, missed one day, unusually, so trousered only £4,500. It was during that month that this ex-jailbird broke a long silence by speaking during a committee meeting.

It was he whom a Daily Mirror photographer caught taking just 21 minutes to nip in and out of the building to secure his tax free £300.

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