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The Independent Online
Major tidies up his back room

AS SPECULATION mounts about who will replace Graham Bright, John Major's Parliamentary Private Secretary, when he finally cedes his place by the PM's side, I hear that talks are going on in Downing Street about the creation of a supplementary co-ordinating position, to be called Minister of State.

The idea is not a new one; it was first mooted by Sir Edward du Cann in the early Eighties when Mrs Thatcher was indisposed owing to a finger operation. The suggestion was that one man would liaise among all the various cabinet ministers to ensure that their statements, at the very least, did not conflict with one another.

Should the talks reach fruition this time, the obvious question would be: who should fill such a position? There are heavy bets in the Commons on the Health Minister, Dr Brian Mawhinney, MP for Peterborough and generally considered the front-runner to be Mr Bright's successor.

Whatever the outcome, there is a definite campaign afoot to improve the image of the Prime Minister - it will commence in January as Mr Major's press secretary, Gus O'Donnell, steps down to be replaced by Christopher Mayer. And that may not be the only staff alteration at Downing Street. 'Change is very definitely on its way,' an insider told me yesterday.

AT LAST I can reveal the winner of the Bookseller's version of the Booker of Bookers competition - the Oddest of the Odd - which I have been chronicling closely in the past few weeks. Runners-up included Big and Very Big Hole Drilling, How to Avoid Huge Ships and The Theory of Lengthwise Rolling. Second prize went to Versailles: The View from Sweden; but the winner - by several lengths - was, quite deservedly, Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice.

Tree takes a walk

BRUISED feelings yesterday at the Department of Employment where, after the annual Christmas party for journalists, trade unionists and the like, it was discovered that someone had stolen the Christmas tree. A diminutive fake number decorated in purple and measuring just a foot high, the tree was the property of the department's chief press officer, Barry Sutlieff. It occupied pride of place on the buffet table for most of the party, but vanished in the fug of ministry Cotes-du-Rhone and endless job-related small talk.

Last night the culprit was still unknown, but fingers were being pointed at one notorious group of hacks, the labour correspondents, whose taste for high jinks of this kind is legendary. If they did do it, they'd better beware: Sutlieff was said to be 'bloody furious'.

THERE has obviously been a spot of trouble at the BBC's Clothes Show in Birmingham, opened at the weekend by Naomi Campbell. At the lingerie show, there is now a sign outside the door: 'Unaccompanied males will not be admitted.'

Socks still flighty

ALARM at the White House: Socks, the highly distinguished Clinton cat, is homesick. According to local reports, the Clintons had hoped that by now he would have adjusted well enough to his new surroundings to roam free without the 40ft leash he has been kept on for a year.

Not so. Indeed, so fearful is Hillary Clinton that he will head at the first opportunity for the governor's mansion in Little Rock, Arkansas, that she has resorted to taking him on short trips round Washington - a useful public relations exercise, of course, for the ever-expanding Socks industry, which began with a pop song that goes: 'No sweat, open the gate/I'll be First Pet, be a cat of state.'

AN IRONIC moment in the Commons lobby yesterday as a cluster of MPs debated the delicate issue of the morality of terrorism. Voices were raised, hands gesticulated - until they noticed an overseas entourage go by. Silence fell. It was Yasser Arafat.

A DAY LIKE THIS

15 December 1940 John Colville, private secretary to Winston Churchill, records a stay at Ditchley Park: 'At dinner Richard Law said to me that the secret of Hitler's power was his demand for sacrifice. The PM understood this and his own speeches were brilliant in this respect, but Bevin thought he could buoy the people up by promising them higher wages and better times. He was wrong. We saw Gone with the Wind which lasted till 2am. I thought the photography superb. The PM said he was 'pulverised by the strength of their feelings and emotions'. After some conversation between the PM and Eden about N Africa I got to bed at 3am; but the PM, throwing himself on a chair in his bedroom, collapsed between the floor and the stool, ending in a most absurd position on the floor with his feet in the air. Having no false dignity, he treated it as a complete joke and repeated several times, 'A real Charlie Chaplin]' '

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