Matthew Bell: The IoS Diary (21/03/10)

First cuckoo of spring

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Only six and a half weeks until 6 May, the date now inked into political diaries for the election, and a bill for £13,000 is waved under our nose. That is the cost for any journalist or photographer wishing to take a seat on Gordon Brown's battlebus for the duration of the campaign. The starting gun is not expected to be fired until 6 April, leaving only four and a bit weeks on tour. With weekends not included, that means the cost works out at over £600 per day, quite a sum even once hotels, meals and petrol are factored in. The cost at the 2001 election, the last time a battlebus was laid on, was about £6,000, recalls one hack. "They would keep us sweet by handing out BlackJacks and Fruit Salad Chews." We'll be expecting Ferrero Rocher this year.

Audiences for the three leadership debates are being carefully engineered by polling firm ICM. It is hand-picking 200 people for each event, all of whom must live within a 30-mile radius of the debate, and who must represent a cross-section of ages, race, gender, toenail-colour and so on. But getting the social bouillabaisse just right is proving trickier than expected: pollsters out knocking on doors are getting despondent. "Many of the people who fit our demographic profiles don't want to take part, while of course we're inundated with requests from all the wrong'uns," sighs one. The debates will take place each Thursday leading up to polling day.

Relatives of Samantha Cameron are scornful of Ed "What have I said?" Vaizey, after his suggestion she might vote other than Conservative. "The idea Sam might vote for Brown is utter nonsense," says Will Astor, Sam's half-brother, at a party at Claridge's. "She has always voted Conservative. I will be voting for Dave, of course, not just because he's family but because it will be good for business." The society blade's support for Dave was once said to be as helpful as an ashtray on a motorbike, but he means well. The trouble for the Astors is that, to support Dave at the election, they will have to get behind Vaizey too: the family seat, Ginge Manor, lies slap in the heart of his Wantage constituency.

A thorny dilemma for Daily Mail hacks – how to report today's Laurence Olivier Awards? Picture desk favourite Keira Knightley, is up for best actress, but she's up against Lorraine Burroughs, nominated for her part in The Mountaintop, a new play directed by James Dacre. He is the 25-year-old son of editor Paul Dacre, among whose pet hates is any form of nepotism. Young Dacre is carving out a name for himself in the theatre, after well-received productions at Cambridge and the Edinburgh Festival: hard to ignore, but too much exposure will displease the boss.

An old fashioned tale of public spiritedness reaches us from Cornwall: the outgoing chief executive of Penwith District Council, Jim McKenna, has decided to give back his £100,000 redundancy money. He plans to give lump sums of £5,000 to every parish and town council in the area over the next 20 years. "We live in a very poor area, we live in difficult times, so I've thought about it long and hard and it's what I want to do. I don't think it's appropriate for people who live in high levels of public service to profit from that." Give that man a peerage.

Meanwhile, a loopy scheme to commemorate Philip Larkin's 25th anniversary, by littering his hometown with fibreglass toads, seems likely to croak after some people wondered if it was quite the right use of taxpayers' money. Until last week, Hull City Council was defending its decision to put £175,000 towards the 65 giant toads, in honour of Larkin's poems "Toads" and "Toads Revisited", but has now withdrawn the funding, describing the project as "embarrassing". Cost aside, it seemed an odd way to remember Larkin, who spoke for all wage-slaves when he wrote: "Why should I let the toad work / Squat on my life? / Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork / And drive the brute off?"

Ever dispassionate, the Jewish Chronicle reports the Winslet-Mendes separation thus: "UK film director Sam Mendes became, once again, one of the world's most eligible Jewish men after he announced his split from actress Kate Winslet." Every cloud....

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