TELEVISION / Clapping in their sleep: Democracy wasn't a big feature of the Tory conference. Nor was good viewing

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I MET my first Tory MP the other day. Being a few drinks the wrong side of prudence, I asked him why the Government was stuffed with third-raters. 'No one's going into politics now,' he said. 'Bright kids at university see the Secretary of State for Social Security earning pounds 40,000, bloody horrendous job, then the poor blighter has to go on Newsnight to get savaged by Paxman. Paxman is paid three times as much as him with none of the crap. Anyone in their right mind wants to be Paxman not the Secretary of State.' That figures. Said Secretary of State, Peter Lilley, is a man out of his right mind even by the standards of Conservatives Live '93 (BBC2). Nor do his English-rose looks inspire confidence. When Lilley introduced 'Jack my Whip' to the faithful, viewers could be forgiven for thinking he was referring to a party game.

Lilley may not look the part, but he certainly knows the lines. In a masterly conflation on Wednesday, he turned three favourite conference bogys (scroungers, foreigners and drug addicts) into a superghoul: the scrounging, foreign drug addict] An upholstered lady in the audience got so excited her Alice band bumped over her eyes. She wasn't the only one having trouble with her vision. According to Mr Lilley, foreigners are filching our dole to finance their filthy habits. 'It is beyond the pale,' he shouted, and we all know what's beyond the pale, don't we? The swarthy. Here was a man who had never tried to sign on. Anyone who had could have told him that apart from a degree in orienteering you need to be a native speaker to play the benefit bored game: 'Go to another department, do not collect pounds 37.'

The idea that hordes of doped Continentals were hitting the jackpot was clearly a fantasy. But then the whole event was fantastical: ministers clashing swords with imaginary demons to disguise the fact they were powerless to quell the real enemy within. Out across the gilded auditorium, they piped the dream of unity - out across the rows of elderly people smiling and clapping in their sleep.

The coverage, though fronted by spiky Sheena McDonald and Vivian White, tended to relax into the cosy somnolence rather than chucking a bucket of cold water over it to bring it round. It wasn't only the delegates' critical faculties that had taken a holiday. Sir George Young (looking like a drippier version of the Duke of Gloucester, a remarkable feat) gave a speech on single mothers pushchairing their way over 'decent couples' to the top of the housing list. It was treated quite seriously till the One O'Clock News when Polly Toynbee delivered an acid report pointing out that most of Young's facts had already been contradicted by his own department.

It was left to Paxman to wipe the smile off smug faces. On Newsnight (BBC2), he greeted Michael Howard's plans to jail everyone - single mums, immigrants, people without a second car - with a superb equine snort: 'We already put more people in prison than any other European country. Are we trying to outdo (deadly pause) Turkey?'

Is it really worth televising party conferences? The time has come when it's hardly worth holding them. They don't show us democracy at work: the merest clamour from a rogue idea and it's marched outside smartish. The BBC ends up acting as a home-video service for Dorothy from Esher or Albert from Batley. A nightly round-up would suffice. Meanwhile, the subtext of the week scrolled silently up the screen in the form of motions that hadn't made it to the debate because they might have provoked, well, debate. In one, from a Leeds man, we finally heard the authentic, stifled voice of Little England: 'There never will be . . . and this conference does not want a classless society.' Attaboy]

News at Ten (ITV) distinguished itself with coverage of events in Moscow, reminding you of its good old days: but the bad new days were back with a vengeance the next night when it asked a perspiring psychologist to assess the depths of the Prime Minister. Scarcely a job for a submariner: just roll up your trousers and paddle. The paddler didn't like the look of John's body language in the Commons: 'A dislike of confrontation, apparent reluctance to be there. You'll notice he's very unsteady with regard to the Dispatch Box.' This item was very unsteady with regard to journalism, and left you feeling that an ITN Tarot reader is probably on the cards.

The best account of the Prime Minister and his party came in The Trollopians (BBC2, Bookmark), Daisy Goodwin's sublimely droll film which took the kind of quizzical look at the Victorian novelist's fans that he would certainly have taken himself. These are the people who think that because an author writes about institutions he is 'establishment', the people who belt out 'Jerusalem' thinking it's a hymn to Great Britishness in flagrant violation of William Blake's bitter intent. Each 'character' - the Governor of the Bank of England, a priggish schoolboy, John Major - was introduced by D J Taylor's immaculate, subversive Trollope parodies: 'At the time at which I write, Mr Major had enjoyed the privilege of conducting Her Majesty's government for three years. Those three years had not been a period of unalloyed happiness. The suggestion that he owed his advancement not to any quality of his own, but to the want of a better man, irked him, and he laboured ceaselessly to disprove it.' At the end, biographer Victoria Glendinning pointed out that Trollope had been 'very rude about Tories. He says nothing stinks so badly in the nose of a Tory politician that he cannot swallow it in the interests of getting a vote.' Funny, that's exactly what Mr Lilley said about the LibDems.

If you're not watching Cracker (ITV), the drama about a foul-mouthed, disturbed psychologist (Robbie Coltrane), you want your head examining. Last Monday, it left the viewer in a delicious, new clingy state: shrink rapt. BBC1 is having less ratings success with Harry, its drama about a foul-mouthed, disturbed journalist. Unfair, but understandable. Michael Elphick gives Harry his bullfrog-with- laryngitis best, and he has fine support, particularly from Tom Hollander as his sappy, green assistant. But Harry's character is not developed like Coltrane's Fitz: the glass of whisky he ostentatiously orders but never drinks acts like a neon sign flashing 'murky past' rather than something organic. You can't buy human complexity on tic. The popularity of Inspector Morse showed that what audiences yearn for is benign solutions in a hard world. Harry's gleeful newshound cynicism ('Contaminated food chain, yes]') probably reminds them of a decade of values that left us with Conservatives Live and everyone else barely breathing.

The exceptional Between the Lines (BBC1) made a timely return in the week when a judge explained why the policemen who seem to have been so generous in securing an unfair trial for the Birmingham Six were not to be treated to one themselves. Deakin, the bent superintendent, was found not guilty and told reporters: 'My experience gives me every confidence in the system. Every confidence.' Irony as black as boots.

Small Objects of Desire (BBC2) had a hyperactive but nicely rounded film on The Bra. Despite a long-range forecast of chilly disapproval, I finally warmed to Jon Ronson's The Ronson Report (BBC2) as the cherubic, knowing innocent helped fans to meet their idols. His metaphor linking Russell's dad's budgies to the caged life of the Nolan Sisters had to be heard to be disbelieved. Finally, who can perform a dazzling comic riff in which Billy Connolly, Ronnie Corbett, John Inman, Francis Howerd and Ben Elton take over Jurassic Park? Rory Bremner . . . Who Else? (C4).