A towering thunderhead of Alto-Cumulus, precursor of change not just in the weather, but in the Climate.

Alan Clark, Diaries, 19 July 1990

ONE of the seeming immortals of British politics collapses with a heart attack in Venice. A minister resigns over his support for a fugitive tycoon. Allegations of political corruption and sleaze bring a new savagery into exchanges between Tory and Labour leaders. One of the last two naval dockyards receives its deathblow. Scottish Tories claim the Union with England is threatened. In an ordinary year, this would have been an extraordinary week.

But these are exceptional times, when even a ministerial resignation registers only briefly. We chomp up that news and move on. Who's next? Politics has become an accelerating race through one Westminster crisis after another, one blinking, defensive minister every few days, the worst possible headlines succeeded by headlines even worse. Is this what political decadence feels like - disorientating, exhilarating, unstoppable?

What has happened is nothing less than a collapse of political authority. Ministers may try to lead or inspire, but their words fail to register. They are not taken, as individuals, seriously. There are long-range reasons for this, from the problems of national leadership in a global economy, to the still-recent recession and the role of the media in a less-deferential society. Political authority is weakening in most democracies.

Then there are the medium-range reasons for political failure. Being in power for so long brings any government its own political problems. By now, everything is your fault, nothing can be blamed on Labour, or the unions, or foreigners. The current regime can blame Margaret Thatcher, and has made tentative stabs at doing so. But she cannot be blamed too openly without reopening a battle in the Tory civil war. If John Major leads from the front, he risks losing in the Commons. If he speaks clearly, some faction of backbenchers will be infuriated by what he says. If he doesn't do those things, he fails in the eyes of the wider, national audience.

Finally, and most acute this week, are the short-term reasons for failure, which can be laid at the door of the Government and the Conservative Party - the blunders by ministers, a lack of grip from Number 10, a row over party funding which reminds us that standards in political life are no higher, perhaps even lower, than standards generally. Politics is a kind of moral mirror for the country. And the country doesn't like what it sees.

The longer-range social and economic issues, and then the particular dilemmas of this tired and small-majority government, explain why the events of this week have had such resonance. In other times, with a booming economy, a large majority and a more subservient press, the Government could have taken the Mates affair, or Commons rows on the financing of the Tory party, in its stride. But the weak economy and the weak majority have cruelly exposed any weaknesses of leadership, to the extent that the Government is losing the ability to be taken seriously.

Authority, that essential, almost magical, ingredient, has gone. The crown looks like a painted hat, the sceptre like a stick, the king bellows but is ignored. When good things happen, the Government will not get the credit. People now yearn to believe the worst, not the best.

AT LEAST in the final period of Mrs Thatcher's leadership there was a feeling that an era was ending, that something new and full of hope might emerge from the rubble - that the thunderhead would inevitably break. But not now. The crucial difference is that there seems no quick exit from today's dirty, sweaty political turmoil, no clean break available to alternative leaders of courage and decision.

No one believes that getting rid of the Prime Minister would allow his party or the country to escape into clear water. Compared with 1990, the excitement at Westminster three years on is febrile, degraded, lacking optimism about the future, never mind any alternative programme.

Faced with this, politicians, and no doubt millions of ordinary citizens, will blame the messenger. Is the British system, they ask, not simply at the mercy of a vicious, self-indulgent and irresponsible press? In a week when journalists took another scalp and then mooched on, eyeing the Government for their next victim, this question deserves to be taken seriously.

Why, for instance, did the national debate not focus on the things that really matter for our prosperity and security in the decades ahead - such as Mr Major's arguments in Copenhagen about European social costs, our failure to create private-sector jobs on anything like the scale of America or Asia, and the expansion of the European Community? Why were we spending our time on what seem tangential matters, like the struggle and fall of a jovial but minor Northern Ireland minister? Perhaps the Government's biggest problem is simply that the media have lost all sense of proportion?

This is, after all, a time in which the Government has not been short of good and important news to sell. Not only are European politics starting, just starting, to turn towards the kind of market-based, anti-statist and anti-federal views that Mr Major and his colleagues share. At the same time, all the available figures suggest that the British economic recovery is taking place more strongly than we thought. Unemployment is falling more quickly than expected, export growth and consumer spending are both strong, as are company profits.

True, the hard decisions needed to clean up the public finances, and the still-yawning current account deficit, are dark clouds in this sunny sky. But a united and strongly led government, confident in its support among voters, would have a good tale to tell over the past few days. As a parliamentary opposition, Labour is not formidable. The new Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, is proving as pugnacious a propagandist as ever. The administration is tilting itself towards the central issues of public concern, such as crime and the rebuilding of manufacturing. Even Mr Major has been putting in punchier dispatch box performances and impressing private audiences with his resilience and loquacity. Some other summer, it would not take a propagandist of unearthly powers to sell a message of a reviving government and economy.

But this summer, that message still feels like fantasy - to almost everyone involved in politics, not only the press. Being more interested in peccadilloes and dirt than economic news is partly a matter of fallen human nature, but sleaze-bathing is particularly evident now because it seems to reflect a deeper truth: disgraceful news seems somehow more credible, more authentic, than good news.

Politicians themselves agree. MPs are equally fascinated by dirt, who's up, who's down. On the Commons terrace, as thunderclouds roll along the Thames, they, too, can sniff the decay. They, too, wonder whether things are falling apart, whether the centre can hold. They want to know more, everything, all the bad news as soon as possible.

They are correspondingly uninterested in high diplomacy. Mr Major's statement in the Commons on the Copenhagen summit was less well attended and much flatter than Monday's bout of adjectival mud wrestling on the financing of political parties.

So blame politicians rather than journalists for the fact that the Monday debate on party funding was the emblematic episode of this crowded, chaotic week. Staring down from the gallery at the benches below, one saw a squirming mass of anger, embarrassment and synthetic outrage, a general wallowing that any decent outside observer would have found repulsive. It was not a pretty sight, but it was a convincing one.

Labour, having taken money from Robert Maxwell and tied still to the demands of union barons, found it impossible to emerge from the encounter with clean hands. But the Conservatives were deeper in the mire. Margaret Beckett, Labour's deputy leader, suggested that government policy on tobacco advertising, the stationing of an army training facility in Dubai and failure to police the Companies Act were all the result of influence bought by Tory party funders. Her speech concluded with one of the most savage denunciations I have heard from a frontbencher.

TO GET the tone of this most bitter of debates, it needs to be quoted in full. She said: 'There is in all this a terrible danger for the health and wellbeing of democracy in Britain, a danger of which Conservative members have no inkling or understanding. If the British people come to believe that the very processes of democracy are being insidiously suborned, to their existing disillusion with the blatant, casual betrayal of all the promises that the Government made them at the election might be added that deep, corrosive cynicism which, wherever it is found, saps public confidence in democracy and creates profound public unease. This is a shabby government, a deceitful government, a government unworthy of the trust that the British people placed in them last year. Their weaknesses and deceits permeate and disfigure the very fabric of British life. It is time they went.'

David Hunt, the Secretary of State for Employment, who responded from the government benches, called that the 'most shabby, irresponsible, miserable speech' he had heard in his 17 years as an MP. He went on to accuse Labour of being willing 'to strike at the heart of our political system and our democracy. They are trying, by a series of slurs and innuendos, to bring our democracy into disrepute. In recent years, they have not only opposed the Conservative government but sought to undermine the very foundations of our political system.'

THAT was a significant event, surely: an encounter in the Mother of Parliaments during which Her Majesty's Opposition formally accuses the Government of betraying democracy and the Government accuses the Opposition of seeking to undermine the political system.

In the few days after those exchanges, the Tory counter-attack continued vigorously. There is blame on both sides, and blame to be attached to some reporters, too. But when the smoke cleared, the Conservative Party was still left defending an indefensible proposition: that rich foreigners, of whatever standing, should be able to fund Britain's party of government secretly. In the cold light of day, this argument is simply not respectable, never mind tenable.

The Michael Mates affair is, in the longer term, a lesser event, though connected and complex. Suggestions that the Serious Fraud Office was behind the leak of a letter from Mr Mates to the Attorney General, and that the campaign against Mr Mates was somehow co-ordinated by the Thatcherites, who have never forgiven him for his role in the Heseltine campaign against her, only added to the atmosphere of murk and division.

It also helps to explain why Mr Major must take much of the blame for the current mood, desperately and genuinely though he protests about it. The most telling aspect of the Mates resignation was that Mr Major failed to grip the nettle early on, despite the damage that similar prevarication did to him before the final dispatch of David Mellor and Norman Lamont. By refusing to dismiss this third minister quickly, no doubt because he did not want to be pushed around by the press, the Prime Minister did himself and his party real harm.

First, he reinforced the impression that 'these guys don't go unless they are forced out'. Second, the delay made it clear that it was press hostility, nothing else, that drove the final decision by the minister. Mr Major merely stood by, silent. Third and perhaps worst for the Government, the affair ensured that several days which should have been dominated by media coverage of the Copenhagen summit and good economic news were wiped out by the will-he, won't- he interest in the Mates affair. No press conspiracy in any of that.

The coincidence of events gives a spurious unity to things that are not, in themselves, related. There is no reason why Mr Heseltine's heart attack in Venice should have added to Mr Major's woes. It was a private, frightening occurrence, nothing more. But the web of politics brought it into the story even so. Lord McAlpine, Tory fund-raiser at the time when Asil Nadir paid over his pounds 400,000 to party funds, now lives in Venice, bumped into Mr Heseltine, and later assisted him when he had his heart attack. Mr Mates had, for many years, been a chief cheerleader for Mr Heseltine, who had himself taken an interest in Asil Nadir's case. Mr Heseltine's illness drew attention, more generally, to the lack of talent in the Cabinet.

When a government loses authority, every piece of news seems bad, related, part of some hidden pattern. Even the decision to award the pounds 5bn Trident refitting contract to Devonport rather than Rosyth carried its own political message: the Conservatives fear a Liberal Democrat assault on what used to be their secure heartland more than the possibility of an anti-Union backlash in Scotland. A strong, self-confident Tory government would have played the politics of that the other way round, put its political defence of the Union ahead of the electoral politics of the West Country.

BUT we have a weak government that has already squandered much of the natural, national authority it won at last year's general election. In this country authority is not innate (not in the Queen, not even in Parliament) but has to be worked for, earnt weekly, by the eloquence and sure-footedness of political leaders and parties. And yes, of course, as old allegiances disappear and society becomes more fluid, fast-moving and questioning, the job of earning authority becomes harder. To date, it is slithering away in the gaps between a prime minister struggling to assert his grip, a government that is tired and suffering from a small majority, and a party trying to defend something that is indefensible.

So where now? Nowhere comfortable. The economic recovery may be strong enough and long enough for this bad week, bad summer, bad year, to fade from voters' minds. Our memories are short and we are said to forgive easily. But whatever happens to Mr Major and to the Conservative Party electorally, their loss of authority is not a matter that can be easily reversed. We may need a national movement for political reform to rebuild confidence in our democracy - changes in the rules; changes in many of the people, too; higher standards; and yes, no doubt, less hysterical journalism. The loss of authority is a dangerous thing, not something to snigger about, treat lightly, still less celebrate. It continues, running through everything that has been happening. For a bright summer's week, these have been a dark few days.