When I switched on Sky News shortly after nine last Sunday, one half of the screen was taken up by a picture of a silent Mr Tony Blair and the other half by a doctor discoursing with animation on the human heart and its many ills. After some minutes of this talk, interrupted by reverential questioning from the announcer, the doctor gave way to another member of the medical profession, if anything of even greater distinction. So it went on.
Naturally, I assumed that the Prime Minister had died; or, if he had not actually gone to a Better Place, he was liable to deliver his first conference speech to his Maker at any moment. The only element which was missing was solemn music. But then, that seems to have gone out of fashion in the broadcasting trade. Even the late Queen Mother was not accorded solemn music; or, if she was, I failed to catch it. Accordingly, its absence could not be taken as an infallible sign that Mr Blair had not, after all, snuffed it.
After some time it became clear - it took a good deal of piecing together - that what had happened was that he had gone into hospital for the electrical correction of an irregular heartbeat. It does not sound very nice, but a lot of people have it - both the condition and the operation. Sometimes the operation is successful, sometimes not, in which case the patient resumes his or her life without necessarily fatal consequences. With Mr Blair it had been successful. The papers were awed when he was ordered to take 24 hours off. This is what some people take off after a hard night. On Tuesday he went to Belfast for an expected triumph:
"The stocks were sold; the Press was squared:
The middle class was quite prepared."
Alas, there was no triumph to be had in Belfast, not even for ready money: some other day, perhaps. No matter. At Prime Minister's Questions the next day he appeared in rather better spirits than Mr Iain Duncan Smith, which was, I suppose, only to be expected in the circumstances. He even managed a joke, quite a good one, by reading out the official briefing on pollution through excessive lighting. And on Thursday he rounded off a good week's work by having Mr George Galloway expelled from the party.
We shall no doubt be told, if we have not been told already, that Mr Blair had nothing to do with this decision. Well, we were told exactly the same about the decision to name Dr David Kelly. Mr Blair said so himself. It then turned out, both in the main body of the evidence to Lord Hutton's inquiry and, conclusively, in Sir Kevin Tebbit's later evidence, that the Prime Minister had chaired the committee at No 10 which had authorised Dr Kelly to be thrown to the sharks.
No one is alleging that he chaired any disciplinary committee on Mr Galloway. That was Ms Rose Burley, who duly appeared on our television screens to announce his expulsion like one of Robespierre's female acolytes during the Terror. Labour's own Committee of Public Safety, which goes by the equally reassuring and elevated title of the National Constitutional Committee, is anxious to correct the impression that the decision was taken by Ms Burley and two other "ordinary" party members. This is the impression which was given on Thursday on television and in Friday's papers. But the decision was, we are informed, taken unanimously by the full committee of workers, peasants and intellectuals: six from the trade unions, four from the constituencies and one from the affiliated organisations.
This may well be so, but we may be equally sure that the guillotine would not have been set up and the lever pulled at the appropriate moment without the approval of our beloved leader. Suppose he had said to the Committee of Public Safety: "For the good of the Revolution - I mean the Project - Galloway must be spared." Does anybody doubt that George would have been released from his fetters?
Admittedly, being expelled from the People's Party is not the worst possible fate that could befall a human being. It has happened to some very distinguished people: Ramsay MacDonald (reviled, but an unsung hero of the Movement), Aneurin Bevan (who, safely dead, gets a better press) and Stafford Cripps. Contrary to what has been written in the last few days, Mr Michael Foot was never expelled. In 1961 he was deprived of the party whip. This is different because deprivation of the whip is a matter for the parliamentary party (even though it is followed by a report to the National Executive Committee), while expulsion is for the party nationally to decide.
In the past such a decision was for the dreaded Organisation Sub-committee. Today it has devolved on the National Constitutional Committee. In the past, also, the final appeal was to the party conference. Today, we are told, there is no appeal at all from the Constitutional Committee. I am not so sure about that myself. We may yet hear Mr Galloway addressing the conference in just under a year's time.
Meanwhile, he has to decide whether to contest a by-election in Glasgow Kelvin, where he has a majority of 7,260 (or 27 per cent) over the Liberal Democrats. He might well win as an independent. Dick Taverne (the true begetter of the SDP) won Lincoln in 1973, having resigned rather than been expelled. He retained the seat in the general election of February 1974 but lost it in the second contest of that year.
A similar fate might meet Mr Galloway, for voters think differently at general elections. He might be better advised to hang on till 2005 as independent member for Glasgow Kelvin, a wholly honourable title, fulfilling his public duty by making as great a parliamentary nuisance of himself as he could. He remains the second best speaker in the House, the first being Mr Denzil Davies, with Mr Robin Cook third.
It was Mr Cook, by the way, who called in a newspaper article for British troops to be withdrawn from Iraq when they had only just arrived there. Nothing happened to Mr Cook. Nor should it have done. Nor should Mr Galloway have been persecuted as he was.
I would guess that half the population at least think that our troops should now be withdrawn from Iraq. A good proportion believe that they had no business to be there in the first place. It follows from this that the indigenous population are fully justified in trying to get rid of them, if necessary by force. Did Mr Galloway say anything so very different from this? And was it so very wrong of him to say it? It is, after all, no more than the standard doctrine of Labour's traditional opposition to imperialism.