But is this faxed copy really from Joan Smith? it anyway?

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THE PICTURE above this column looks the same as it did last week but what about the words? Following the London Evening Standard's exciting new innovation of ventriloquial journalism, in which the byline at the top of an article doesn't necessarily have any connection with the person who wrote it, how can readers be sure they're getting my views rather than, say, some sprog of the Howard family?

Evidently you can't judge by content. I should have thought the odds against young Mr Howard, the Home Secretary's son, producing paragraphs indistinguishable from those of the veteran left-winger Bryan Gould were - what shall we say? - about the same as winning the National Lottery? But those poor people at the Standard apparently didn't have the least inkling that something was wrong.

It's a worrying thought. Perhaps even now the children of other Cabinet ministers are busily tapping into their keyboards, lists of newspaper fax numbers at the ready. Just imagine: Richard Ingrams - Why I support working mothers; Paul Johnson - more TV sex and violence please; Neal Ascherson - so who cares about the Balkans? Would anyone notice? I've given this a lot of thought in the past couple of days as I sat in the garden, filling in my application form to join the Conservative party, and I've come to the conclusion that, yes, we're all frighteningly vulnerable.

ANOTHER possibility is that the Standard was so eager to find someone of stature on the left who was prepared publicly to attack Tony Blair that its journalists indulged in a willing suspension of disbelief when Nick Howard's faxed article arrived. For the expressions of discontent from within the Labour party have been extraordinarily muted or quickly withdrawn or made by MPs no one's previously heard of outside their own constituencies.

Even Peter Hain, who made some trenchant remarks about party organisation in this week's New Statesman, was at pains to insist he's not criticising the leader personally. I have a lot of sympathy with Hain, especially when he complains that local party meetings are "insufferably boring". One of the immediate benefits of leaving the party in the late 1980s, when I could no longer bear Neil Kinnock's leadership, was not having to sit through ward meetings which exactly fitted Hain's description.

Another is that, once you're outside the party, you don't have to be polite. Do I believe that Tony Blair will lead a radical Labour government? Can I imagine his administration replacing the House of Lords with an elected second chamber, introducing proportion-al representation, getting rid of Britain's nuclear submarines, abolishing the state subsidy of public schools by removing their charitable status, returning opted-out schools and hospitals to democratic local control, leading a debate about the future of the monarchy? Of course I can't.

The Conservative party chairman, Dr Brian Mawhinney, has been rampaging round the country for the past couple of weeks, trying to scare voters into thinking New Labour has a secret agenda which will systematically dismantle the ghastly inequalities of wealth and opportunity brought about by the Thatcher years. But I'm not convinced he really believes it, any more than I do.

UNLIKE TONY BLAIR I'm not a Christian; never have been, which was a contributory factor to my being thrown out of the Brownies. (I know it was a long time ago, but these things hurt when you're 10. I tried so hard to be a good pixie.)

It came as a surprise, then, when an old friend rang up in June and asked me to be her elder daughter's godmother. The only churches I go into as a rule are those Florentine ones with the fabulous frescoes, Santa Maria Novella and the Brancacci chapel, and I pointed out that an atheist wasn't the ideal choice to bring Natasha up in the Christian faith, forswearing the devil and all his works.

I offered instead to take her to art galleries and to supply her with a few key feminist texts like The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm when she's older. So we compromised on the alternative title of mentor - mentrix if you want to be pedantic - which means she gets the usual number of godparents plus me and I didn't have to go to church.

I recommend this pluralist solution to other parents whose friends find themselves hostile to, or rejected by, the church. Although I sympathise with Simon Lawley, a gay man in Farnborough who was turned down as a potential godfather on grounds of his sexual orientation, I can't say I'm surprised.

Lawley has since found a church in Lincolnshire willing to accept him and has been quoted as saying: "To have this blanket of bigotry and homophobia thrown over me was incredible. It was worse than anything I'd experienced outside the church." To an outside observer like me, it's always seemed that one of the principal functions of religion is to exert a somewhat doctrinaire control of other people's sexuality. Expecting to find a church entirely free of homophobia and misogyny is like looking for Hansel without Gretel, or one Beverley Sister.

ANDREA Guglieri, mayor of a small Italian resort to the west of Genoa, is hoping to introduce a dress code which would prevent fat women from wearing bikinis in his town. In a gesture of even-handedness, he also offered to devise a similar set of requirements for men.

The problem with these codes, in my view, is that they never go far enough. Here's what I'd ban from urban streets: beer guts, tattoos, body piercing, uneven tans, trainers, sportswear, bumbags, man-made fibres, tartan socks, suede shoes (men), white stilettos (women), shorts (both), tight jeans, loose jeans, baseball caps, T-shirts with writing on them, bald men (to wear hats at all times or pay fines) ... I've barely got going and already I've run out of space.