A ringside view at Belshazzar's Feast

Click to follow
The Independent Online
It was one of those days when no one could agree what country they were living in.

Recently all parties have signed up for the idea that morals are declining, children revolting, parents hopeless, teachers heroic or feckless (according to whether or not they get beaten up), dangerous mental patients marauding, stalkers stalking and our armed forces are the best in the world. All this is uncontroversial.

But when the economy is the subject of debate, this gloomy consensus goes out of the window. Sir Sydney Chapman (Con Chipping Barnet) started it at Prime Minister's Question Time with praise for the latest fall in unemployment, "the largest for two years, underlining yet again the success of the Government's policies".

Yes, said the PM, joblessness was falling "in a way that cannot be said of anywhere else in Europe". Once, of course, it was rising in a a way that could not be said of anywhere else in Europe - but that was due to adverse trade cycles.

So here we have a picture which - like the medieval Allegory of Good Government in Siena Town Hall - depicts the British Paradise; a scene of industrious happiness, where contented cod-pieced citizens bustle about their trade, while dusky foreign merchants and investors (dazzled by what they see) wander amongst the white, positive-equitied towers.

Such is not Labour's view. What about today's rise in inflation, asked Tony Blair; inflation which was leading to a sharp rise in long-term interest rates. How could all this be squared with the PM's statements about his inflation targets? In his Allegory of Bad Government, an indebted people are encouraged by a squalid leadership to ignore the shabbiness around them, the broken tiles and dead dogs, and spend, spend, spend as though there was tomorrow.

Only after the next election will the bills fall due and the children start to die.

The Prime Minister had quite a simple way of explaining the divergence between these two images - the idiocy of Mr Blair and anyone who agreed with him. "I know that the retail price figures are complex to understand" ("Oooh, he's getting nasty!" thought the Tory backbenches, wriggling happily), "So I will explain them to the Right Honourable Gentleman" ("Oh yes!", they murmured). Mr Blair persisted with one of those Brownian league tables that we are always near the bottom of.

Back came a rampant John Major. "He really doesn't understand!" ("Yes, yes, yes!" they cried). "It's genuine, he doesn't understand it! ("Oh! oh! oh!") "They are as incapable of running the economy as they are of understanding it!" ("More! More!" they chorused, in something close to an ecstasy of nastiness).

When Tone got up for his third bite he could hardly be heard. Extraordinary animalistic yells, not unlike those that must have been heard round the Colosseum on Eat the Christian Day, or during the best bit of Belshazzar's Feast, almost drowned him out. The louder it got, the more the Labour leader resorted to visual communication - in the form of an upthrust index finger - as though he might puncture the brown, flatulent bubble of Tory noise in front of him. He didn't.

When he sat down, a happy Major rubbed it in. October's inflation, he said, was the "fourth best we have known in October since the war!" Clearly Good Government. But by the time I had got back to my word-processor Labour's computerised rapid-rebuttal unit had calculated that "since 1956, inflation was lower in Octobers 1958/59/60/63/64/67/93 and 94".

Bad Government, obviously.