The last part of the story may well be true - though societies, as distinguished from persons, who purport to look after unwanted cats should be treated with circumspection. I once inquired of one of them (no names, no writs) what happened to the animals they "rescued" and elicited with some difficulty the information that they were put gently to sleep. I am sure this fate has not befallen Humphrey. But about the stated reasons for his removal I remain sceptical. I suspect Ms Cherie Booth, QC, had a hand in it.
After the election the story appeared that she disliked cats, finding them unhygienic. The Prime Minister's press secretary, Mr Alastair Campbell, took alarm. He feared an adverse effect on public opinion. Accordingly he arranged a newspaper picture to be taken of Mrs Blair and Humphrey together. She held the evidently alarmed creature as if she were clasping an asp to her bosom. There was really no more to be said. If ever a picture told a story, this was it.
But it seems that Mr Blair can surmount not only the murky donation of Mr Bernie Ecclestone but the even more mysterious departure of Humphrey as well. That, surely, is the message from Thursday's by-elections.
On the Today programme Mr John Humphrys put it to the Chief Secretary, Mr Alistair Darling, that the Winchester result was a humiliation for the Government because the Labour candidate came third and lost his deposit. Mr Humphrys went on to hazard - at least I think he did, for the kettle was just coming to the boil at the time - that the Beckenham result must have been something of a disappointment for the People's Party too, because it had failed to take a seat from the Conservatives.
Well, Mr Humphrys is paid to ask questions of this kind. I make no complaint. But Winchester and Beckenham do not indicate any real shift since the election. It is not that the voters wanted Labour then, but do not want the Tories now. Mr Blair won his majority precisely because the nation hated the Conservative Party. The Labour Party had 43 per cent of the United Kingdom vote. In 1992 the Conservatives had 42 per cent, and in the three previous elections, going backwards in time, 43, 42 and 45 per cent. Labour won the second election of 1974, just, with 40 per cent of the UK vote.
In politics there are all sorts of honeymoons. Or, rather, Mr Blair has several blushing brides. There are not only the voters but also the newspapers, the backbenchers and his colleagues in government. The by-elections show that, if the voters were presented with a second general election, they would behave much as they did in May.
Mr Blair's other consorts are not so contented. There is no doubt that the Ecclestone affair came as a great - and salutary - shock to those now set in authority over us. I lost count of the number of times a television announcer said that a member of the Government had been invited to participate in the programme but that the invitation had been declined.
Up to a point these tactics of preserving radio silence worked. They worked partly because both independent television and the BBC are less aggressive towards this government than they were towards the last one; partly because a complicated succession of events is more difficult to set out clearly on television than in print; and partly because the Conservatives have been in a state of chronic embarrassment about the whole question of party funding, as well they might be. So to this extent Mr Blair's ploy of throwing any mud straight back at the Tories has worked.
There is no need to apologise for returning to what Mr Blair said in the House on 12 November. He made no clear reference either to the first - and undisputed - donation which Mr Ecclestone had made or to the second one which was being sought. He said:
"There was the decision to seek a specific exemption for Formula One and then to seek a worldwide voluntary agreement so as to avoid grand prix in other countries being shown here without restriction. Once that route was chosen, I recognised that there was obviously an appearance of conflict of interest. After discussion with the general secretary of the Labour Party we sought Sir Patrick Neill's advice."
What the general secretary, Mr Tom Sawyer, had written on 7 November was:
"Mr Ecclestone has, since the election, offered a further donation. The Prime Minister has decided that in the light of our approach to the [European] directive and to avoid any possible appearance of a conflict of interest we should consult you on whether it may properly be accepted."
Mr Sawyer assumed that he could hang on to Mr Ecclestone's first donation. Sir Patrick ruled that he should hand this back and refuse the second one as well. The course of events was not, to put it charitably, wholly clear from Mr Blair's answer five days later, which must have been sub-edited down to the last comma. Four days after that Mr Blair appeared on television with Mr Humphrys to say: "Trust me, I'm a politician."
I had often heard of people saying: "Trust me, I'm a doctor." Dr Crippen probably uttered those very words as he nudged Mrs Crippen towards the cellar door. But this was the first time I had heard a British politician - as distinct from a United States politician such as Richard Nixon - go on television to claim to be trusted for no other reason than that he was the person he was. Perhaps Harold Wilson came nearest to it in the 1970 election when he went round the country saying: "Well, there's me, you know me, Harold's my name. And then there's that other chap, forget what he's called now. Who d'you want, me, or the other chap?" "Thanks very much," the voters replied, "but we'll take the other chap."
On present evidence it is unlikely that Mr William Hague would emulate the other chap, Sir Edward Heath, who turned a Labour majority of 96 into a Conservative majority of 30. He would clearly fail to do so on the results of the by-elections. But Sir Edward, who was denigrated in much the same way and for much the same reasons as Mr Hague is today, had four years at his disposal, as Mr Hague has.
Wilson was thrown out because of the economy and because he was no longer trusted. Mr Blair's mistakes have so far been of what I call the procedural kind, exemplified by his bringing Sir Patrick on to the stage in an attempt to divert the audience. The voters do not greatly bother their heads with this kind of thing. They are more concerned with their pockets. I still think that whatever the by-elections tell us they may nevertheless be worried about Humphrey.Reuse content