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New Labour, don't laugh

Hear the new jokes, just like the old jokes. What is going on when politicians cosy up to would-be satirists and vice versa? asks Debbie Barham. And if a politician really does need to fight back? Don't go to court, get on to Have I Got News For You.

The climate for political satire could hardly be better. The economy, the NHS, the Welfare State and the Foreign Secretary's secretary, to name but a few, are all being comprehensively screwed by members of the government. To cap it all, there's the sitting target of the Millennium Dome - which might as well have a big neon sign on the top saying "Take The P Here".

And yet, somehow, laughter is stuck stubbornly at zero. Despite the plethora of so-called "satirical" shows - Have I Got News..., Friday Night Armistice, It's Later Than You Think etc on TV, The News Quiz, Week Ending, The News Huddlines on radio - and spoof columns in any newspaper you care to mention, it's a case of New Labour ... same old jokes. True, it is extremely comforting to have a High Court jury confirm suspicions that Rupert Allason is, officially, a conniving little shit, but if calling someone a shit is the most rapier- like barb our illustrious satirists can deliver, then poor old Swift must be turning in his grave. Not to mention poor old John Wells, whose loss seems to be the final death knell for satire as we knew it.

The problem, as I see it, is this. Satire has become a victim of its own popularity. Being the conniving little shits they clearly are, politicians have realised that it's infinitely preferable to be seen as a knockabout, ha- ha, self-deprecating kind of a guy on Have I Got News For You than spouting piously to the tiny minority of viewers who are still awake during Question Time. Political satirists are now perceived to be at least as influential as their supposed targets.

No wonder Spitting Image had to be put out of its misery. Once cutting and controversial, it had reached a stage where politicians were actually honoured to be immortalised in latex. Being a Spitting Image character meant reaching a whole new audience. And better to be known as a man who wears underpants outside his trousers, than not to be known at all.

Back in the Eighties, Radio 4's Week Ending - never a barrel of laughs, but undeniably a training ground for Armando Iannucci, Andy Hamilton, Clive Anderson and their ilk - was yanked from schedules during the general election campaign. Contrast this with 1997, when a live, uncensored edition of Friday Night Armistice was simulcast with the official coverage (though watched by anyone who hadn't tumbled to the fact that Portillo getting kicked out was 10 times funnier than anything the humorists could dream up.

But it's awfully hard for satire shows to be subversive, when the writers of such shows are in fact writing gags for the politicians themselves. The same comedic minds responsible for Angus Deayton's witty quips on HIGNFY are also allegedly responsible for Gordon Brown's, erm, witty quips (it's the way he tells 'em ... I'm assured that the Endogenous Growth Theorem gag absolutely kills audiences at the Guildhall).

Mandelson biographer Derek Draper, I believe, used to be a useful contact for the Rory Bremner show - that same Rory Bremner show whose producer was so outraged to receive an unsolicited pre-election fax from Blair's office, asking whether Bremner had any spare jokes he might like to donate.

John Prescott, of course, has his down-to-earth, working-class credentials to uphold, so he'd never dream of getting speeches penned by some smug satirical upstart straight out of Footlights. He gets his stuff done by the chaps who write Roy Hudd's knob jokes (which is only slightly embarrassing when the same joke happens to have gone out on Radio 2 just prior to its delivery by Mr Prescott).

It's a sorry state of affairs when Steve Penk of Capital Radio can be put through to the PM's office pretending to be William Hague, and come up with nothing more inventive than "Hello, it's William. Er, I just rang up to have a chat". One cannot help wondering what satirists of the Seventies might have made of such a golden opportunity. As it was, this incident just boosted Blair's popular image as being "up for a laugh".

Admittedly there are a few, like Clark and Allason, who get the wrong end of the stick and play it all outraged. And those such as Tony "the Gaffer" Banks, who tries to out-funny the funnymen and ends up slandering foetuses everywhere by likening them to the Leader of the Opposition. But in general, deflecting jokesters' wit has become just another part of the modern MP's media-savvy. So - farewell, then, political satire?