Alan Watkins: The mood among our legislators is one of shame. They couldn't wait to get away

Like most power maniacs, the PM is uninterested in food or drink
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The Independent Online

Some time before Mr George Bush's bout of disrespectful Texan familiarity - "Yo, Blair" - a member of the Government addressed the Prime Minister by his surname alone. It was Lord Irvine of Lairg. "Where's the whisky, then, young Blair?" the lord chancellor asked of his former pupil at the Bar.

Mr Tony Blair's response is not recorded. Like most power-maniacs, he is uninterested in food or drink. But soon afterwards Lord Irvine was replaced on the Woolsack by another, younger friend, Lord Falconer of Thoroton. It only goes to show, though precisely what it does show is not entirely obvious. Certainly Mr Blair is in no position to dismiss the President of the United States, in any sense of that word.

In the 1960s, when that gifted journalist the late John Morgan was working at the New Statesman, the then chairman of the paper, the equally late Lord (Jock) Campbell of Eskan, wrote a letter beginning: "Dear Morgan." Or it may have been: "My Dear Morgan." The precise circumstances I have now forgotten.

At all events, Morgan (a Swansea boy, from nearby Morriston) took the most colossal offence. Who precisely was Campbell to address his contributor in this way? That was what Morgan wanted to know.

Campbell confessed himself puzzled. He did not know the journalist concerned well enough to call him "John". On the other hand as Campbell said at the time in pained tones, it would be impossible to call him "Mr Morgan". That was used only of the gardener, or persons of that description. This was Campbell's view at the New Statesman of that time.

Mr Blair, unlike John Morgan, does not seem to have been at all cross. It was a piece of badinage, many of the words unfamiliar to me ("honey", for instance, when used as an adjective), and altogether contrived to create an impression of consorting with the mighty in their seats.

Mr Vladimir Putin, by contrast, appeared to make Mr Blair distinctly annoyed by pointing out that Mr Blair too had embarrassing characters such as Lord Levy on his hands. It was not what No 10 would have considered a helpful observation on the part of the Russian president.

Taking one month with another, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer used to do in less insouciant times - I am referring back to the balance of payments rather than to the prospect of the Middle East going up in flames - Mr Blair is going through a bad spell. He is going through a bad spell in the Middle East today, not to mention other parts of the world.

The overwhelming sense in the House of Commons was one of shame. So far from wanting to see parliament recalled, which tends to happen at moments of crisis in August, with backbench publicity-seekers occasionally successful in their endeavours, the legislators were anxious to go off on their holidays as soon as they could; meanwhile taking care to sail well away from the eastern Mediterranean.

Mr David Cameron asked his first question about the cancellation of the Government's house-purchase pack, with much else in a similar vein. Mrs Margaret Beckett, a former candidate for leader from the Hard Left, has contrived to make Mr Jack Straw a positive giant of diplomatic statesmanship. Only Mr Kim Howells, the Junior Foreign Office minister in charge of the British evacuation from Beirut, has given any impression of being vaguely in charge.

This attitude may derive from the old, even ancient, Arab prejudices of the Foreign Office. But I do not think so. The pathetic Mrs Beckett is saying as little as possible without offending her boss before retiring to her caravan; while the even bigger boss says: "Yo, Blair."

In the circumstances it is agreeable to be able to say something nice about Sir Menzies Campbell. I think it was mistaken to replace Mr Charles Kennedy, in which I see the opinion polls now agree with me, for what that is worth. But Sir Menzies, following a few Question Time misfortunes which could have happened to anybody, was treated as a claimant for a Zimmer-frame and a candidate for the spare armchair in the old people's home.

In reality he was once the fastest white man in the world (a former sportswriter's phrase, not his own) and he is of the same age as Winston Churchill was when he first became Prime Minister. But the parliamentary sketchwriters had the time of their lives. In the last few weeks he has revived perceptibly.

First he put the Conservatives to shame with his attack on the Government's attitude to the three extradited bankers. In a letter to the present issue of The Spectator, the former Law Lord Lord Lloyd of Berwick demonstrates conclusively that the Government was right, which was one reason why I was reluctant to deal with the affair at an earlier stage.

But Sir Menzies was perfectly right to raise the question as he did. That, after all, is what Oppositions are for, though Mr Cameron is strangely, or perhaps, not so strangely - disinclined to enter disturbed waters, at the risk of getting thoroughly wet, or even of drowning. One example is Iraq and the other is the Lebanon.

In the last six months, most of my colleagues have read the situation differently. Mr Cameron would decant support from the Liberal Democrats. He was younger and people liked him, or as much as they knew about him. Sir Menzies was not exactly disliked but he was older than his predecessor and did not shine at Prime Minister's Questions. Above all, Iraq was receding from the memory. Mr Blair would depart at some date, whether of his own or of someone else's choosing. And the fight would be between Mr Cameron and Mr Gordon Brown.

Well, it has not worked out quite like that. The voters may still prefer Mr Kennedy to Sir Menzies. But he nevertheless seems a straightforward sort of chap. There was a victory over Labour in Fife and very nearly a victory of the Tories in Bromley. I do not, by the way, believe for a moment that the Conservatives would have done better than they did if they had chosen a young woman from Cameron's Bank to stand instead.

Though by-elections may not always be infallible guides for a general election, they are at least as reliable as soothsayers as parliamentary sketchwriters. And Sir Menzies may in the end have to form an alliance with the Conservatives simply for the Queen's government to be carried on.