Matthew Norman: This dogfight has descended into farce

At a moment of infinite global distress, Mr Blair revealed himself as rigidly preoccupied with a personal feud
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The Independent Online

At what is always a gloomy time in the calendar, but never more so than this year, the craving for a cathartic belly laugh is especially intense. So our most sincere thanks to the Prime Minister for providing such a corker yesterday. With Gordon Brown delivering his neo-Marshall Plan for Africa elsewhere, it fell to ITN's Nick Robinson to ask the PM why he had decided to address the nation on the identical issue at the identical moment. "What on earth," Mr Robinson asked with admirable bluntness, "is going on?"

"The important thing is that the whole of the Government ..." began Mr Tony Blair, before abandoning the thought and changing tack. "I'm not interested in what goes in and out of the newspapers."

Chroniclers of Mr Blair's sorties into the uplands of accidental self-irony may debate whether this one has the edge over the Stormont Castle classic that went: "Now is not the time for sound bites. I can feel the hand of history on my shoulder." Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. Either way, it is such a beauty that one suspects some personal tuition from Des O'Connor at one of those All Souls high table-style Chequers dinners we're all so thrilled to have funded through our income tax.

"I'm not interested in what goes in and out of the newspapers ..."

Had the line been spoken by another Chequers' banqueter, Geri Halliwell, or even by Max Clifford, it would have had less comedic impact. For as Des O'Connor would confirm, a cracking gag is all about timing ... and yesterday, the timing was beyond perfection.

For several months, Gordon's address on Africa had been scheduled for 10am on 6 January ... and then, on 5 January, Mr Blair elected to shift his own monthly presidential press conference - always held, until now, at noon - to 10am. At a moment of infinite global distress, with the death count in southern Asia edging towards 200,000, he revealed himself as rigidly preoccupied with a personal feud and its presentation in the media.

We must try not to get too aerated. Calm down, dear, as the former beau of Chequers' banqueter Jenny Seagrove would put it: it's just a commercial. What else could such a press conference be but a prolonged self-advertisement, this one bringing to mind Esther Rantzen (yet another Chequers' chomper) proving just how much she cares by plugging ambulance-chasing law firms. If the PM wants to trivialise the catastrophes about which he was nominally speaking with a grotesque instance of playground power politics, what can you do? Mr Blair is transparently what he is.

What Mr Blair is not, of course, is a historian, least of all of the party he leads. If he was, he'd have been more unnerved by Nick Robinson's fiendishly clever (assuming the resonance was intended) question. Once upon a time, another Labour PM fatigued by leadership speculation addressed the matter head on with a gag of his own. "People keep asking what's going on," Harold Wilson told a late-1960s Labour conference. "I'll tell you what's going on. I'm going on." Alright, it was more Des O'Connor than Oscar Wilde, but it got a huge, boil-lancing laugh, and Harold Wilson did go on to fight three more general elections, winning two of them.

Of all his predecessors, Wilson is the one with whom the incumbent might least enjoy being closely compared. Current opinion tends to regard Wilson as a lightweight, borderline charlatan who left (but for the Open University) no lasting legacy - the fate Gordon Brown predicted for his boss in an article this week - and whose sole talents were surviving in office, winning elections and enjoying close relations with dodgy businessmen (not that there's any record of him feeding tobacco manufacturers on the taxpayer).

If anything, too close a comparison does Wilson a disservice. For one thing, he was the last PM to defy the military demands of a US president, disobeying Lyndon Johnson's order for British troops to fight in Vietnam. And whereas Mr Blair inherited the most glorious economic conditions, Wilson spent most of his first period of office having the latest gold reserve figures rushed into him on the hour, every hour; and all of his second battling the unions and tapping the IMF for another few billion to keep the country out of Carey Street.

His one advantage over Mr Blair was in having not one but several titanic figures in his cabinet who felt they could do the job better than him, allowing him skilfully to play off these barons against one another. Having said that, there may be a lesson in his ham-fisted attempt to neutralise the power of the Treasury, by creating the short-lived Department of Economic Affairs, and placing it in the gift of that drunken prima donna George Brown. Ultimately, it was the chancellor Wilson sought to control, Jim Callaghan, who succeeded him, albeit briefly and disastrously.

Whether or not history will repeat itself as a similar tragedy for Gordon Brown, there is no doubting that the current PM vs Chancellor dogfight has descended into utter farce. They might as well have held yesterday's press conferences in adjoining rooms, and had the two protagonists slipping from one to the other through secret doors, without their trousers but with Cherie cast to type as the vicar's wife.

So chaotic has the apex of government become that I'm reminded of the excellent BBC2 documentary series Trouble At The Top, which recounted some of the more hilarious fallings-out of recent years. One concerned the world of darts. There, egomania-driven animosity among administrators led to the formation of competing world championships, the more compelling of which ended on Monday in the annual victory for Phil "The Power" Taylor. Another show deconstructed the power struggle between original members to own the name Buck's Fizz, with the result that the Euroblondies splintered into two bands, each singing the same songs in the same way - tuneful echoes there of 10am yesterday - but suffused with hatred towards one another.

Tempting as it is to suggest that Labour separates into two parties - possibly called Tony Blair's New Labour and Gordon Brown's Labour Gold - the omens are not encouraging. When the rival darts champions met recently for the undisputed title, Andy "The Viking" Fordham, the 27-stone Kent publican, was obliged to retire halfway through when unable to breathe. As for Bucks Fizz, making their minds up proved impossible, a long legal struggle ensued, and the name eventually fell into the chubby hands of David Van Day, formerly of Dollar, but better known for selling hamburgers from a van in Brighton than his singing. Some may foresee the part of Mr Van Day, who'd never been in Bucks Fizz in the first place, being taken here by Alan Milburn.

For these reasons and others, not least the precedent of the inter-war Liberals, and however appealing a swift conclusion to this infantile squabbling may seem, it probably isn't a spiffing idea for Labour to split asunder.

What the side-splitting grand finale to this irreverent Whitehall farce will be, we will know within a couple of years, so long as Mr Blair lives up to his billing as the second Harold Wilson and honours his promise to quit. Please God, he does just that. With the exception of yesterday's magnificent piece of self-parody, the joke is wearing unbearably thin.