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A bolt out of the true blue

RECENT speculation that the Health Minister Brian Mawhinney may replace Graham Bright as John Major's Parliamentary Private Secretary in the new year is likely to be somewhat scuppered by the news that he has just been given a new PPS himself - in the form of Alan Duncan, the sprightly millionaire MP for Rutland and Melton.

Mr Duncan, 36, says he was surprised at the appointment, which starts immediately, now that Patrick Thompson, MP for Norwich North has retired. 'It came like a bolt out of the blue,' he told me yesterday - a view that is shared by others who recall a certain frisson between the MP and the Prime Minister over Maastricht. Not only did the PM hear that Mr Duncan had signed a motion criticising government policy - he actually spotted Duncan holding the treacherous paper on the Commons Terrace.

Mr Duncan, however, is a dexterous man. In 1991 he vehemently declared himself a staunch Thatcher supporter; yet only two hours after her defeat he had turned his London house into the base for John Major's leadership campaign. With similar skill, he has now eased himself back into parliamentary favour. 'I am looking forward to working with such a hard-working man as Dr Mawhinney,' he told me yesterday. 'It is a very important department.'

IT'S party time at Whitehall - well, in some departments, at least. Rumour has it that Employment enjoyed the best food - sushi - accompanied by a Welsh harpist; Transport got the palatial surroundings of London's Lancaster House; Welsh office canapes stretched to crisps, but there was wine . . . from Wales. Kenneth Clarke won the Scrooge Award for cancelling the Treasury party at Number 11, and Virginia Bottomley was awarded the goody two-shoes prize for boasting that her department has underspent its hospitality budget.

Party Times

NEWSPAPER bashes tend to be like any other sort of office party: some wine, some canapes, and the odd indiscretion on the dance floor. Result? A few blushing faces the following morning and no real harm done. This year, however, the festivities of one broadsheet turned into a nightmarish fiasco - the scars of which will be imprinted on the faces of some staff for weeks to come.

Monday night saw the Times home news team trot off joyfully to a well-known Fleet Street bar for a series of sharpeners. A few hours later - and heavily refreshed - they piled into a double-decker bus, due to take them to the Soho transvestite bar Madame Jojo's.

Thereafter, the picture becomes blurred. At some point on the bus journey a serious punch-up developed among the hacks on the top deck. Fists flew, nails scratched, blood was drawn. Soon the police arrived and the party, it seemed, was over.

Not so for a group of stalwarts. Undeterred by their wounds, they made their own way to the club - where, according to one onlooker, such was the manner of their dancing that the drag act scheduled for 5am could not make it on to the stage. The words of a new Times recruit, fresh from a tabloid, spring to mind: 'I just didn't think people on posh papers behaved like that.'

Proof that indeed they do reaches us from the Telegraph, where Lord Deedes, the paper's 80-year-old former editor, yesterday put on a Christmas cabaret for his paper's staff for which he donned a pink wig and strutted around, claiming tunefully: 'I'm too sexy for my shirt.'

THEIR boss, William Waldegrave, doesn't know this yet - 'he'll find out soon enough,' they say - but two bright young things from the Cabinet Office, Paul Dunn and Paul Bradley, have formed a rock band and recorded their first album. Away from their pinstripes, the duo are known as Scantily Clad.

Exit Mr Blobbo

EXTRAORDINARY as it may seem, the BBC has taken umbrage with an unsuspecting theatre in Norwich which planned to use a Mr Blobby lookalike in its Christmas panto. Conscious that Noel Edmonds et al were feeling proprietorial about their protege, the Theatre Royal, Norwich, instead engaged a close cousin, Mr Blobbo, who was to have had a cameo role in Dick Whittington, starring Lionel Blair. Shortly before the first night, however, Mr Blobbo was dropped after strong objections from the Beeb. He has been replaced by a dinosaur.


23 December 1943 Chips Channon writes in his diary: 'A Proustian incident. In a Bond Street jewellers, I saw an extraordinary marionette of a woman with a really frightening appearance. I recognised Gladys Marlborough, once the world's most beautiful woman, the toast of Paris, the love of Proust, the belle amie of Anatole France. I went up to her, and smiled, and put out my hand which she took shrinkingly and then, breaking into French (as she always did) said, 'Est-ce que je vous connais, Monsieur?' 'Yes,' I said, 'I am Chips.' She looked at me, stared vacantly with those famous turquoise eyes that drove men insane with desire, and muttered: 'Je n'ai jamais entendu ce nom-la.' She flung down a ruby clip she was examining, and bolted from the shop. I remembered how we had been allies for 20 years or more; how she used to telephone me every morning; how we used to lunch with Proust; and the story that D'Annunzio fainted when he saw her, such was her beauty.'