Matthew Norman: Do the bells toll for Tony Blair?

Since the autumn there has been an air of fin de siècle incompetence familiar from the dog days of Major
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The Independent Online

What a soft-hearted old sweetie that Hilary Armstrong is. She may look a bit like Anne Robinson as reflected in a fairground mirror, and she may (for now, at least) carry the fearsome title of Chief Whip. But there's nothing of the Francis Urquhart about the fluffy, scatty, skittish member for North West Durham.

Far from it, she's New Labour's very own Lucille Ball, and her orchestration of the most amusing parliamentary sketch in memory should be read as an act of unparalleled political kindness. Noting how crestfallen George Galloway looked when confronted with a montage of nasty headlines on emerging from the Big Brother house, Hilary evidently took pity and resolved to do whatever she could to cheer him up. Within days, she managed to provide George with a gigantic therapeutic belly laugh.

It was Hilary, let us remember, who took it upon herself a few weeks back to go to Bethnal Green, waving a petition and inciting George's constituents to record their fury at their MP going AWOL. That she herself would then oversee the Prime Minister's decisive absenteeism from the aye lobby on Wednesday ... well, one hesitates to use the term "comic genius" too lightly, but you can hardly deny her a place alongside the most gifted ironists of the age.

There may today be those calling on Hilary to be consistent, and turn up in Sedgefield with a petition railing against that other arch deserter Tony Blair. All George missed, they would say, was a meaningless vote about Crossrail. By nipping off early to catch The Simpsons on Sky One, on the other hand, the PM personally neutered the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill that formed such a central plank of his sustained assault on whatever civil liberties remain to us.

The Sedgefield petition is an engaging idea, but I doubt Hilary will be making the trip. As all good comedians know, the last thing to do when you've just brought the House down is overegg the pudding. Best to bask in the mirth, milk the applause, and leave the stage on a high.

Hilary will be leaving the bigger stage soon enough, when the PM gets around to what one hopes will be his final reshuffle, and given her passionate commitment to MPs representing constituents she'll be thrilled to have all that extra time to tend to her own flock in the North-east. Undeniably she will be a loss to fans of political vaudeville, but others will survive to carry the torch. One promising turn, for instance, is Paul Goggins. Once, Goggins claimed to be related to the inspiration for the character of Mrs Goggins, the postmistress in Postman Pat. Why he imagined such a claim would help his career is bewilderingly opaque, but he went on about it on an almost daily basis until it was proved to be a total invention.

However, it is now understood that he is himself a minor character from children's fiction, being a second cousin of Bilbo Baggins. Pilpo Goggins (Paul is, of course, an Anglicised version of his given Hobbit name) was Postmaster General in the government of Middle Earth, but, after being advised that he had no chance of making the Cabinet, he lowered his sights, joined New Labour, and rose swiftly to his current post as an exceedingly junior Home Office minister.

As such, he rose to his feet on Wednesday - just as Mr Blair was wondering whether the episode in question would be the one where he welcomes Homer and the family at Heathrow - to insist that the Religious Hatred Bill would in no way threaten freedom of speech. Doh! Who in their right mind would think that legislation removing the freedom to say certain jokes could impinge on freedom of speech? If you're going to yield to wild hyperbole, you might as well make a real fool of yourself, and claim that new prevention of terrorism laws - the ones we've also been assured won't curtail freedom of speech - could enable a slightly built young vegan to be arrested by a dozen armed coppers for quietly reciting the names of the war dead by the Cenotaph.

Goggins's distress at Wednesday's parliamentary reverse suggests he is still out of his depth, and would struggle to hold down the position of defence minister in the government of Camberwick Green. The defeat was grossly unfair, so he insists, because the Conservative peers seemed interested in finding a compromise. On reflection, maybe he's right. If Labour MPs aren't prepared to jettison their objections to proposed legislation on the strength of a putative fudge that might or might not be sanctioned by the Tory leader in the Lords, Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith, the second Baron Strathclyde, it's come to something, has it not?

And then, jostling for space with Hilary herself at the top of the bill, we find our much-loved Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, a man who uses his ears to comic effect much as Ken Dodd does his teeth. What a fine day, what a fine day yesterday was for taking your tickling stick on to the airwaves, and ascribing the previous night's defeat solely to recalcitrant colleagues wanting to give the Government a kicking.

There can be no question, in Mr Clarke's world view, that members of the Commons could have principled objections to an Act many of us, gloriously represented by Rowan Atkinson, thought illiberal, dangerous, guaranteed to be abused and plain bloody daft. As always (you may recall how opponents of the invasion of Iraq were routinely styled as "Saddam apologists"), those against their measures can, in the eyes of ministers, only be motivated by mischief and spite.

As tattifilarious as this episode has been, it's also been as perfect a New Labour snapshot as Walter Wolfgang's ejection from the conference hall. Yet added to the familiar mix - the smug certainty in its own wisdom and moral rectitude, and the autocratic centralist instinct - since the autumn is an air of fin de siècle incompetence familiar from the dog days of John Major ("Dr" John Reid's wretched Today programme performances remind me more and more of Dr Brian Mawhinney) and Mrs Thatcher (Peter Morrison drunkenly snoozing in the vital hours before the ballot).

How directly this fiasco presages the end of Mr Blair, it is too soon to say, and it would be melodramatic to interpret it as the tolling of the bells. But widespread ridicule is a peculiarly dangerous virus for a politician with an already depleted immune system, and the only vaguely similar instance I can think of does seem oddly foreboding. In the 1997 general election, the wife of the sitting Tory MP for Winchester, Gerry Malone, voted not for her husband, but at the polling station near their London home. Mr Malone claimed that he did vote for himself, and you can only pray that this was so since he lost by precisely two votes, to a Liberal Democrat by the name of Mark Oaten. Not perhaps the most encouraging of omens.