Coffee shop politics sound a modern echo of Swift

Kenneth Baker, the former Tory minister, has popped into Politico's, Westminster's newest political bookshop and cafe, to buy a left-wing post card.

"Election `97. This choice is no choice," runs the slogan above a picture of two identical candidates labelled "Tweedlelab" and "Tweedlecon." "Record a protest. Spoil your ballot paper."

Not that the former Conservative Home Secretary is endorsing the sentiment, of course. He just collects political cartoons. Mr Baker spots a copy of Thatcher for Beginners and is suffused with giggles.

"I don't think you're a beginner," the owner, Iain Dale, tells him, and he departs to his waiting car clutching his postcard and a second-hand book of Vicky cartoons which he has impulse-bought.

Above the door of Politico's is a motto, penned by Jonathan Swift in 1711: "It is a folly of too many to mistake the echo of a London coffee- house for the echo of the kingdom."

Despite that warning, Mr Dale has set out to discover how the election will go. Since the former lobbyist opened his shop a month ago after seeing similar outfits in Washington, 800 of his customers have voted both for a prime minister and for a government. Tony Blair is the Politico's prime minister, and Margaret Thatcher has come in second. John Major has limped home fifth, just behind Geri, from the Spice Girls. Among the parties, Labour is running at 46 points, 10 points ahead of the Conservatives, while the Liberal Democrats are trailing on 11.

Mr Dale hopes to do brisk business during the election, and adds that his shop has comfortably surpassed its sales targets in the first month. The punters have some surprising tastes, though, with Gerald Kaufman's autobiography outselling Michael Heseltine's biography by far. The best- selling book is a guide to the general election, but Mr Kaufman's How To Be A Minister is a comfortable second. Tony Blair fridge magnets are a big seller, as are the "Grow your own government" fantasy seeds.

Upstairs in the cafe "Election Choice specials" are on sale alongside "Number 10 doorsteps" and beef-free "Douglas Hoggs".

Not everyone has come here to discuss politics, though. Two female civil servants have popped in for a sneaky look at Hidden Agendas by Derek Lewis, the sacked former head of the Prison Service. Now they are upstairs having a bite of lunch. Are they talking about the election? "Oh, no," they reply. "We're bitching about our colleagues. Isn't that what people generally do over lunch?"

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