Cabinet ministers start blaming one another, like rival accountants after the discovery of a gigantic fraud of the kind which has become familiar in Mr Tony Blair's Britain. The backbenchers are both surly and apprehensive, hating their jobs and at the same time being terrified of losing them. If they are asked what they are doing, they reply: We're here because we're here because we're here.
Ministers say much the same. Some of them, the latest example being Mr David Blunkett, seem peculiarly prone to personal disasters or, at any rate, embarrassments of one sort or another. As for the Prime Minister, he or she (for Margaret Thatcher went through this phase after 1988) lives in an increasingly remote and private world, far removed from the preoccupations of ordinary citizens or even of ordinary ministers.
Sometimes these moments of disintegration are final; mark a turning point; go on to lead to defeat at the polls. On other occasions, however, they pass. Mr Blair has had several of them already and is still there, just about. But the most common successful remedy, which may or may not cheer up Mr Gordon Brown, is a change of Prime Minister.
Thus the Conservatives were demoralised after Anthony Eden's adventure in Suez but rallied under Harold Macmillan, who proceeded to win the subsequent election with a large majority. Things began to go wrong in 1962, a year before the Profumo affair which - so far from "bringing the government down", as mythology has it - led to a new Prime Minister in Lord Home. Though he may have been a figure of fun, he almost won an election which most people expected Harold Wilson to win easily.
The next moment of disintegration occurred with devaluation in 1967. Wilson was in less danger than he thought he was, but Roy Jenkins, uncontaminated by the fate of the pound, might have won the 1970 election if he had been Prime Minister instead.
Mrs Thatcher, as she then was, went in 1990 because she had been behaving in a strange way for at least two years and because the Conservatives thought they would lose their seats, and their jobs, if she continued in office. John Major duly did what he had been brought in to do, which was to win an election. His moment of collapse came about at once, with our expulsion from the exchange rate mechanism. He never recovered.
Today, likewise, there is a full term to go, possibly five years. Do ministers, apart from Mr Brown, want it? Are they up to it? Their performance over smoking was not so much a return to cabinet government, as some observers optimistically described it, more a music-hall impression of headless chickens.
I now await the discovery by Ms Patricia Hewitt of passive drinking. This was a condition first identified by Mr Michael Wharton, the journalist. It was a danger prevalent in the Fleet Street of the 1960s and 1970s, when middle-aged men would return to the office hungry after lunch and breathe alcoholic fumes over innocent secretaries, to whom they would address lewd observations, personal remarks and requests for bacon sandwiches from the canteen. The perils of passive drinking are perhaps less than they were in the newspaper industry, but in other parts of the economy they are greater, and clearly call for the attention of Ms Hewitt.
It has been said that the smoking fiasco happened because Mr Blair was not interested in the subject. I should have thought, on the contrary, that as it involved bossiness, priggishness and headlines, it was right up his street. But it is evident that his eye is on other matters. Last Wednesday he went all the way to Strasbourg to address the European Parliament and was heckled for his pains. His auditors, or some of them, did not share his view that the primary function of European social democracy was to serve the interests of United States capital. Instead they wanted longer holidays, shorter hours and bigger pensions. And why not?, as Mr Barry Norman denies ever having said.
The consequential jeering was described by the BBC as "good-natured". What, I wonder, does jeering sound like when it is ill-natured? Moreover, one would have expected the heckling of the United Kingdom Prime Minister to be the lead item on the evening's television news. Instead, on all the programmes that I saw, it was buried halfway down the bulletin, preceded by pictures of a smiling Mr Blair doing some glad-handing, for all the world as if his trip had been an unqualified success. These days the sycophancy of the broadcasters generally and the BBC in particular towards the Prime Minister is greater even than that of The Times newspaper.
The trouble is that he is searching frenziedly for his place in history. At one time it appeared it would have something to do with Europe. But that presented difficulties of various kinds. It was both an intractable and an unpopular subject and has now become an unfashionable one as well. He has more recently turned his attention to the "delivery" of public services, in particular of education. But it may be that what he will be remembered for is the invasion of Iraq.
Some readers have taken exception to my often repeated description of Mr Blair as "the young war criminal". Several of them have been my well-wishers. One, an old friend, went so far as to say that the phrase was "unworthy" of me. But it is neither a rhetorical flourish on my part nor an example of what the libel lawyers call vulgar abuse. It is, I believe, an expression of sober truth.
The majority of those tried at Nuremberg after the war were not convicted of exterminating the Jews or, more broadly, of crimes against humanity but, rather, of waging aggressive war contrary to the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which was held to be part of international law. This is what Mr Blair and Mr George Bush did in Iraq. At the first lecture that I attended at Cambridge given by Sir Robert Jennings, later President of the International Court of Justice, he said (I am going by memory): "The next time some clever person tells you that international law does not exist, you might reply that several people have been hanged because of it."
Personally, I am not in favour of hanging anybody, not even Mr Blair (or, as it happens, Saddam Hussein either). But that does not alter my view that he is a war criminal none the less.