Westminster Notebook / Rebels take libel advice as Major gets righteous

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Indy Politics
I hear that the nine Euro-rebels who lost the whip after the vote on the European Finance Bill are making fresh trouble for John Major, having consulted their learned friends over what they believe is a potentially defamatory article by the Prime Minister in last weekend's Mail on Sunday .

The article, headlined "These few self-indulgent rebels won't stop me doing what is right'', described some rebels as having voted against the Government, whereas in fact eight had abstained, while the ninth, Sir Richard Body, one of those whose picture appears alongside the article, actually voted for the Government before voluntarily resigning the whip.

According to Nick Budgen, one of the nine, the "damaging and disturbing'' allegation threatens to cause especial difficulty among councillor activists in the rebels' constituencies who had been told firmly by the MPs that they had decided to abstain specifically so as not to "risk a general election'', and who may now doubt whether they were told the truth.

Mr Budgen has been closeted with the whips trying to "resolve the situation". But if the negotiations fail, there are mutterings that Sir James Goldsmith may be wheeled in to help bankroll what would, by any standards, be a spectacular libel action.

n n n Having struck a blow for sex equality, the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, is also determined to do something for racial equality in the House of Commons.

Ms Boothroyd has let it be known that she expects before long the House authorities to appoint its first black badge messenger.

The messengers have traditionally been recruited among retired non-commissioned officers from the armed services. As a result, they have been an exclusively white male preserve.

But under Ms Boothroyd's influence, that is already changing, and two women have been recruited. The men dress in black tailcoats, with black bow ties and starched white shirts with wing collars. Their badge of office is a large gilt affair on a gold chain.

The new women recruits have adopted an appropriately smart black outfit without the tailcoats. But some of their male colleagues are still sceptical. The messengers sometimes have to act as security guards, as the last line of defence protecting MPs fromassailants in the public gallery. "What would they do if there was a fight up there?" said one disgruntled old hand. "It's just a job like any other now. They might as well recruit people from the dole."

n n n Peter Snape, the Labour MP and "minder" for Labour's candidate in the Dudley West by-election, loaned his car, a Jaguar, for the visit by Tony Blair to the constituency.

To ensure that it was appropriately spotless, Mr Snape took the precaution of having it valet-serviced for the sort of sum that Mr Blair allegedly spends on his haircuts. After a few minutes, Mr Snape heard the alarm going off. The valet company had accidentally locked the keys inside the car, while it was being washed, and were trying to break in to retrieve them.

"You'll never get in there," said Mr Snape. "It's got special security locks."

They got in, using a plastic ruler. Exactly how, he is keeping a secret, but he is not best pleased with the security system.

n n n Ian Pearson, the Labour candidate in the Dudley West by-election, has been kept largely silent by his handlers, fearing a gaffe could upset their campaign.

Mr Pearson has looked so ill at ease when it came to small talk that he was compared unfavourably to the stuffed alligator at the entrance to the restaurant in the Copthorne Hotel, Dudley, in which the Labour MPs have been staying. His lack of animation was put down by a member of his campaign team to his education. "He's a bloody Balliol man. What do you expect?" he said.