An eventful day at Westminster today, with many revelations. The first was that the Government has now decided to allow its backbenchers a free vote on the proposed ban on smoking in public places. The Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, has been under fire for some time from the Commons Health Committe, who are tabling an amendment to the Bill proposing a total ban, as opposed to the partial ban that her Government are proposing. However, resolve has cracked at the Labour whips' office, who are fearful of another 90-day detention period-esque Commons defeat and the repercussions that it would have on their party.
The Government whips have decided, therefore, to allow Labour backbenchers to proceed unmolested to either lobby when the M.P.s get to vote on it again in the Commons. Londonist has now learned that Ms. Hewitt herself is rumoured to be intending to vote with the Labour rebels in favour of a total ban. Watch this space for a more detailed report on the Health Bill and its implications when the Bill arrives in the Commons for its next reading in a couple of weeks.
The second revelation is the increasing heat focused on Education Secretary Ruth Kelly, regarding the case in which a registered sex offender was given a job as a P.E teacher in a school in Norwich. In Londonist's view, P.E teachers are a pretty sadistic bunch, but this case oversteps the line somewhat. An investigation into the application process is now underway. This is a tense time for Kelly: Her job is on the line, and we shall soon see if she can weather the storm (update: the Beeb have just printed a story claiming that Kelly is to keep her job).
The third revelation was today's Prime Minister's Questions. The Lib Dems were the cause of much hilarity, caused largely by Sir Menzies Campbell, the Acting Leader and favourite for the permanent post of Leader. When he was called by the Speaker, the House erupted into jeers, to which Ming (as he is known) responded, with a smile on his face: "And a very happy new year to you all, too!" He then held the Prime Minister to account on the subject of public services, to which Mr. Blair gave a very bland answer.
Ming's supplementary question was the subject of some controversy, as he put his foot right in it. He asked why one in five schools do not have a permanent headteacher. It only took one quick-witted M.P. to comment on the similarities between this scenario and the current situation within Ming's own party for the Chamber to again erupt into laughter and jeers. Ming, laughing, responded: "I knew it was going to be one of those days." He was right: When Simon Hughes, another potential candidate for the leadership of the Lib Dems, caught the Speaker's eye, the puerile jeering started up again. His question, on NHS waiting lists, received a restrained answer from the Prime Minister, but when Mr. Hughes made an aside, contradicting what Mr. Blair had said, The PM decided that it was time for no more Mr. Nice Guy. He retorted with "If he's going to back our reforms, I'm going to back him instead of the other one!" before looking around the chamber for Mark Oaten, the third candidate for the leadership, saying: "There is no end to the Lib Dem careers I could sacrifice this afternoon. Where's the other one?"
David Cameron stayed wisely aloof of the infantile exchanges, as they would come under what he has denounced as 'Punch and Judy politics'. Mr. Blair used ridicule to avoid answering what were relevant and astute questions from both Campbell and Hughes. The Lib Dems are in trouble, certainly, but they are always (and often unfairly) the butt of jokes and jibes in the Commons. Londonist will report on the election of their new party leader as it unfolds.
The final revelation, and this is truly the most significant, is that last night, the annual parliamentary pool competition over in Annie's Bar was won by Shahid Malik, Labour M.P. for Dewsbury. He beat off stiff competition from last year's champion, Kevin Brennan, who had in turn beaten Andy Burnham, a Home Office minister in the semi-final. No doubt Brennan lost his nerve in the final due to the prospect of a going over in the whips' office for showing up a Minister's inferior pool skills.
The evening's MC, Ealing North's M.P., Stephen Pound, claimed after the presentation of the trophy, known as the Annie, that Shahid Malik is in fact a hustler who only became an M.P. to win the annual pool competition. Even if this is true, at least he didn't become an M.P. in order to excuse his alleged dodgy funding, receive publicity, and get on a game show with the single intention of stroking his already inflated ego, and in the process, miss an important debate. Step forward, Mr. Galloway...