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Mandelson gets in a spin

The other day I asked the BBC if John Birt's strictures to the Labour Party to stop trying to spin doctor them into submission had had any effect. "Oh, most definitely," my most senior source told me, "they never try to bully us any more. We've put them in their place."

The next day I sauntered off to Westminster, glowing with pride in the impartiality of our national broadcasting corporation. And what did I spy?

The BBC's Westminster correspondent, Huw Edwards, being shouted at and, I shudder to say, sworn at by a man who I took to be a violently disgruntled licence fee payer. I averted my eyes.

But the row continued for some time. Wearily I looked a little harder at Edwards's assailant. Imagine my consternation when I discerned him to be Peter Mandelson MP, father of spin doctoring and active servant of the Blair cause!

Worse still was the cause of his ire - he was berating Mr Edwards over the BBC's coverage of the Harriet Harman affair.

Red faces among blues

In case you thought the Tories were having an easy time of it, what with Labour in turmoil over the Harriet Harman brouhaha, I bring tidings of a possible embarrassment to the true blue camp. In December (since when they have kept it very quiet) John Evans, 43, the Tories' prospective parliamentary candidate for Sherwood, was arrested for allegedly stealing a man's coat from a branch of Marks & Spencer in Guildford, Surrey.

However, Evans, a former leader of Hastings Council, was not charged. A police spokesman said: "He has been bailed to return on February 6 when a decision will be made as to whether he is charged."

If he were to be charged, his political position would be in dire straits. But for the moment, Tory Central Office says stoutly: "We don't talk about 'ifs'."

Gym life, but not as we ...

Following my recent exclusive about the new friendship between the Princess of Wales and Madonna I have fresh news which may cause the two to bond even further.

Madonna is a fan of the Princess's favourite gym, the Harbour Club. Unlike the Princess, however, Madonna does not believe in sharing the premises with either Joe Public, England rugby captains or property developers. Last year, therefore, she rang the club and asked if it would close during her stay in London, so that she and her friends could use it exclusively.

"It will be worth your while," she told the management, "My name will give you great publicity." Unsurprisingly, the Harbour Club refused.

But imagine if (after she has perused this column) the Princess is game- on to share in Madonna's plan - perhaps the club will change its mind. The sight of the pair of them arriving together in their Lycra shorts? What more could the paparazzi want? Perhaps a shot of Lycra-shorted Tiggy Legge-Bourke, nanny to the young princes, and reportedly Diana's bete noir, arriving arm in arm with the Princess ... but now I'm falling off into fantasy land.

Branson: 'Why I lose'

What does a tycoon do when he is stranded in Morocco, waiting for the weather to improve so he can mount his balloon? Richard Branson has taken up Travel Scrabble - very badly. Anxious, however, not to lose face with his opponents, a succession of Fleet Street's finest, he declared earnestly the other day: "It's not my game. I was brought up on Monopoly and Risk." That, agreed the hacks, explains a lot ...

Howard's way in Ambridge

To the City Livery Club, to celebrate 45 years of fictional rural dwelling on Radio 4 - namely The Archers. There I encountered one of the programme's biggest fans, the Home Secretary, Michael Howard.

He jovially told me that he "skims the Sunday papers in order to settle down to the omnibus edition and coffee" (Sunday newspaper editors, please take note).

However, recent listening has caused Mr Howard a certain amount of alarm - he is most concerned by the budding romance between Shula Archer and the abrasive Simon Pemberton. Unable to keep his fears (and perhaps his sense of reality) to himself, on Tuesday night he strode over to the actress Sara Coward (alias Caroline Pemberton). "Congratulations on your marriage to Guy Pemberton," he told her earnestly, adding, "but I think you have to do something about your new stepson, fast."

Eagle Eye