Drink-fuelled antics in Downing Street

The royal yacht Britannia mate its fate down the boozer.


The royal yacht Britannia: sunk by booze

Booze has always played a vital role in Westminster politics, as Ben Wright noted in The Sunday Times. One way or another it's affected many important decisions. Take the scrapping of the royal yacht Britannia, which so saddened the Queen. The decision to do this, says Wright, was inspired by booze.

Charlie Whelan, Gordon Brown's ebullient former spin doctor, had a habit "of dreaming up policy ideas with journalists" in the pubs round Westminster. This was 1997, the year of cool Britannia, not old Britannia, and the Treasury was keen to cut the £11m-a-year cost of keeping the Queen's yacht afloat. So when Whelan, the chancellor's press spokesman, was drinking with a couple of Sunday newspaper journalists shortly after the general election, they "agreed to splash" on Britannia being scrapped.

"We dreamt up the idea that doing in the royal yacht would be a good idea, a good story. That was dreamt up over a few drinks at the bar," says Whelan.

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As for Brown himself: Damian McBride, who also did a spell as his press chief, says his favourite tipple was champagne. The then chancellor was always reluctant to let people know this, however, and at Downing Street receptions would nurse an undrunk glass of beer. Afterwards, he would invite close aides up to the flat and the champagne would emerge. "He would knock it back. He would never consider two glasses of champagne a big deal Down in one: whoosh!"

McBride also tells of drink-fuelled antics inside Downing Street while Brown was chancellor and desperate for the occupant of Number Ten to quit. "Downing Streetshares a lot of staircases even though you've got independent flats. You cross a lot of walls that the Blairs would be on the other side of. And occasionally, in heavy drink after those Christmas parties, people walking down the stairs would hammer on the walls shouting, When are you going to f*** off? When are you going to f*** off?'"

How to do the wiring with a ferret

The dukes and baronets who feature in Adrian Tinniswood's new book about life in English country houses between the wars were a strange and colourful lot. They were also, says Virginia Nicholson in The Times, remarkably inventive.

The fifth Duke of Portland, for example, was so keen on his privacy that he had huge underground galleries built in which he could hide. These were so extensive that he was eventually able to climb intohis carriage at Welbeck Abbey and ride in it through a mile and a half of specially excavated tunnels towards Worksop station. At which point his carriage would be lifted on to a train. All without being seen.

At the other end of the scale, the problem of wiring the ballroom at Stanford Hall was solved in a cheap but ingenious way. So as not to damage the 18th-century dcor, someone had the bright idea of levering up a floorboard at one end of the ballroom and dropping a dead rabbit into the hole. Then, at the other end, a hungry ferret was "unleashed into the maze of joists with a lengthy string tied to its collar, pulling the cable after it". Brilliant, says Nicholson.

Tabloid money The new Top Gear has lost its spark of genius


The new Top Gear was "rather like watching a tribute band going through the motions", says Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail. The BBC2 show "began with the bespectacled [Chris] Evans leaping round the studio, shouting. Mr Whippy on speed. He is a self-congratulatory little fellow, his first words being Beautiful! Marvellous!'" After that it all felt a bit "samey" .

Gone was "the chemistry and the Home Counties banter between the old trio. Absent the trademark, deadpan disdain of Jeremy Clarkson, the sardonic repartee between him and Richard Hammond, the Pooterish stoicism of James May It was reasonably entertaining. But it has lost its spark of genius".

"Johnny Depp's wife of 15 months, Amber Heard (pictured), who filed for divorce two days after his mother died, may have had good reason," says Carole Malone in The Sunday Mirror. "Not because the once beautiful Pirates of the Caribbean star now looks like old man Steptoe, but because Ms Heard says he's repeatedlyattacked her. If true, that could mean a £35m payout, so isn't it lucky she's got all those photos and videos of the alleged attacks? I'm just wondering why Heard didn't leave Depp before."

It wasn't as if, like many battered women, she had to stay because of money worries.

"The Queen is looking forward to her... break at Balmoral where two contrasting 90th birthday presents await," says Ephraim Hardcastle in the Daily Mail.

"One is a £229,500 Bentley Bentayga First Edition, which she test-drove around the Balmoral estate last year. The other is a £20 butterfly net, from her gardeners. She may well use this more than the car. One of HMQ's favourite Balmoral pastimes is removing the bats which roost at the castle and passing them to a flunkey to release into the grounds. She chooses to believe they don't fly straight back."