Thursday is often a bit dull at Westminster, with MPs sloping off early for the weekend and most of the week’s business already done. Not this Thursday. The verdict on whether Tessa Jowell broke the ministerial code is expected, as well as the result of the Liberal Democrat leadership contest.
A Labour MP stops me on my way into the Commons to give me his (unasked-for) opinion on both. Jowell — finished, even if she’s cleared today. Backbenchers don’t like the impression given to their constituents by all this money sloshing around. The Lib Dems — it’ll be Ming.
I pop into Treasury questions in time to hear the rather strait-laced paymaster-general, Dawn Primarolo, say that "every member of this House has thousands of families, thousands of children benefiting from the tax credit". Even for MPs, that’s going it a bit.
A spin doctor for Gordon Brown nips into The Times’s office afterwards to explain that the reason the pop star Shakira was in the Commons yesterday (in case we hadn’t noticed) was because she had been visiting Mr Brown.
"Unbeknownst to us," he adds, "her record company sent a photographer with lighting and everything with her." He is obviously desperate for us to get hold of these pictures and run them.
A colleague grills the spin doctor instead on whether it is true that the chancellor has had his teeth fixed. The response sounds like a non-denial denial to me. Just in case you thought we spent our day discussing great affairs of state.
None of it helps me with what I am actually here to do, which is to think of something to write about for a column in the Saturday paper called "politics for humans", a newish column that aims to attract readers who claim not to be interested in politics. I always find it extremely difficult to pitch it right.
After lunch with the terribly distinguished Times columnist Anatole Kaletsky, I drag him along to witness the announcement of the Lib Dem leadership result. It is a surprisingly lacklustre affair after such an extraordinary contest.
Eventually I decide to link Tessa Jowell and the Liberal Democrats with an article about second or even third, fourth, fifth home ownership (the failed leadership contender Chris Huhne owns nine properties). I’ve just had to look up what else I wrote about. Always remember that about columnists.
No matter how passionately we care, by the time you read it and call us we are passionately caring about something else.
04.03.06 & 05.03.06
I spend the weekend sowing seeds in a friend’s garden. This may not sound like work, but it is: I am preparing for a new column about growing vegetables, due to start in the Saturday magazine shortly, to the great amusement of friends and family.
It strikes me as I read the lettuce packet for the third time that I neither know how to grow vegetables nor how to write about growing them. It is the first time it has occurred to me that this might be a problem.
On Sunday afternoon I break a rule and check my emails, then waste an hour replying to furious second-home owners and delighted no-home owners. Someone who says she is the wife of an MP emails angrily to ask whether I would like her to sleep under a railway arch in a sleeping bag.
A really, really important job. I do my expenses. For the past five months. It takes an entire morning. Spend the rest of the day reading the papers, making calls, and trying to decide what to write for my Wednesday column. I usually halfprepare three or four ideas, and then change my mind on Tuesday. The weekly negotiation with my fellow columnist Danny Finkelstein over who gets to cover which subject for Wednesday begins. Having both been shortlisted for political journalist of the year by that very excellent publication, Press Gazette, competition is even more intense than usual. We are sparing no opportunity to undermine one another.
The Times’s weekly political conference in Wapping throws up a few more ideas. I am more interested by the resignation, suddenly announced at 11am, of the chief executive of the NHS Nigel Crisp, whose resignation statement appears to accept responsibility for the current deficits in the health service. Just as interesting, an announcement that Times business editor Patience Wheatcroft is going to edit the Sunday Telegraph. (Note to colleagues on the Sun Tel: she’s not as scary as she looks. But almost.)
I spend the day talking mainly to contacts in the health service and writing about the relative fortunes of health secretary Patricia Hewitt, who seems to have had a stroke of luck, and Tessa Jowell, who hasn’t. And I am still answering emails about second homes. This is why I rarely print my address at the end of columns. Replying takes too much time; not to reply seems rude. On the up side, the anonymous MP’s wife and I are now agreeing with one another.
Danny has written something boring about immigration.
Very exciting — health and safety appear at my desk to do a "workstation assessment". It is too cramped, as all offices in the House of Commons are. We discuss at some length whether the clothes of the former occupant of this desk, Tom Baldwin, which are mysteriously strewn on the floor beneath the desk — a shirt, a tie and a shoe without a lace — can be thrown away. Tom is now in Washington and presumably doesn’t need them, but it’s nice to have a reminder of him around the place. On the floor.
After watching Prime Minister’s questions I have lunch in Portcullis House with an MP’s wife, and watch who everyone else is having lunch with. David Miliband and Mary Ann Sieghart, for instance. You never know when knowing these things can matter. A lot of political journalism is about filing apparently disparate pieces of information and later joining up the dots. Then I go to a select committee on traffic policing that I think might be interesting for the Saturday column. It gives me the germ of an idea.