Matthew Norman: Let's not deny the comedy in the Levy affair

He is a guest star from early 'Minder'... the shrewd little fixer with the gold Roller and lush white shagpile
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There was a time a few years ago (and for all I know the practice persists) when every Saturday morning Baron Levy of Mill Hill was flanked on his journey to synagogue by two police outriders. The official reason for this motorcade was the terrorist threat to the Prime Minister's Special Envoy to the Middle East, but it didn't wash.

After all, the last thing anyone in danger would dream of doing is draw attention to himself for the benefit of any passing Hamas hitman, which is why a discreet Special Branch presence is the more usual form of protection.

Even a glancing acquaintance with Lord Levy's ego suggests he was asking Johnny Taxpayer to fund this costly charade. As Christopher Meyer records in his splendid Washington memoir, Levy is a swanker of the first water, and nothing establishes a chap's grandeur and proximity to the centre of political power like the presence of uniformed officers on motorbikes and state business.

Be careful what you wish for, eh? Today, Levy seems less keen on police escorts. There was his little lordship graciously making himself available for a friendly chat, and the police opted to treat this ermine-clad titan as nothing more than a ... well, without wishing to seem indelicate, a suspect. The impertinence of it. The diabolical chutzpah. Don't they know who he is? Don't they know the identity, more to the point, of his tennis partner?

They do, of course, and a forthcoming interview with the Roger Federer to Levy's Rafael Nadal is something all but the PM's most demented apologists must anticipate with glee. For now, Mr Tony Blair and his fellow bunker-dwellers can only do what they always do in times of strife: deploy the tactic known to Alastair Campbell, that Zizou of disgraced propagandists, as playing the man, not the ball. Rather than address the weighty allegations that Blair and Levy broke the law by offering honours for gifts dressed up as soft loans, in other words, they smear Deputy Assistant Commissioner John Yates for arresting the wonderfully indignant Levy rather than contenting himself with the cosy chat.

No 10's dislike of grandstanding coppers is so well established that when David Blunkett and less lustrous loyalists rush to the airwaves in bewilderment at Levy's treatment, it's impossible not to sympathise. It is all so terribly unfair when the Government took the trouble to appoint as Met Commissioner the reticent Sir Ian Blair, rather than one of those new-fangled coppers who sees himself as quite the media superstar.

If Blunkers appears more distressed by Levy's arrest than by the police shooting innocent people, so he should be. This isn't a Brazilian electrician we're talking about, or a couple of Muslim lads in Forest Gate with a bit of money under the floorboards. This is Lord Cashpoint, Schmoozer of Schmoozers, the man whose talents extended from discovering Alvin Stardust to coming so tantalisingly close to resolving the ancient, intractable problems of the Middle East.

I don't suppose we'll ever know whether the noble Lord mentioned any of this in the interview room, and tried to pull rank when Mr Yates turned on the tape recorder. But if he did ask if they knew who he was, it's testament to the admirable backbone being exhibited by the Met that you can readily imagine the sardonic constable by the door opening it, and yelling, "Can anyone help, lads, only we've got a bloke in here who's forgotten his name?" down the corridor.

To Mr Yates, both an apology for assuming his investigation would be purely cosmetic, and condolences for the many hours already passed in his lordship's company. Years ago, I spent one lunchtime with him, and haven't begun to recover from a display of bumptious name-dropping the like of which you would not believe. Edith Piaf, the Emperor Vespasian, Stanley Matthews, Erasmus, George Eliot, Elvis and Colonel Parker, Colonel Bogey, Colonel Sanders, Che Guevara, Piltdown Man, Sonny and Cher, Sunni and Shia, Sheri Lewis and Lamb Chop ... if they ever existed in fact or fiction, so it seemed by the time the bill brought blessed relief, Michael Levy was their confidant, friend and loving brother. He even cited bosom buddiedom with Michael Winner, a name not lightly dropped. "Close friends, dear?" spluttered Winner when the claim was later put to him. "I met the man once for five minutes at a party, and all he did was try to bully me into signing a cheque."

With more malleable potential donors, Lord Levy was more successful, albeit he needed help from his guv'nor to pull off that classic con known as The Old Tennis One-Two. On court, Levy would mention to the sucker - or "mark" in the argot of grifting - that the PM might drop by for a quick set. Mr Blair would duly arrive, dropping the victim's name a few times and doubtless his serve before dashing off to Sharm El Sheikh, leaving Levy to pour the Robinson's Barley Water and entice a generous "loan" from the star-struck mark.

Cute as the trick may have been, it wasn't the most enchanting vignette. That honour belongs to the tale of Downing Street staffers racing to the hospital bed of then party chairman Ian McCartney, still woozy from major open heart surgery and his life still in the balance, and thrusting a pen into his hand so he could sign off the party accounts. You may recall Alan Partridge doing exactly the same after the new BBC1 chief commissioner of programmes, Chris Feather, slumped forward from a fatal coronary when poised to sign his new five-year contract.

However grave the loans-for-honours scandal for its two chief protagonists, it would be priggish to deny the rich comedy provided by that branch of humour which depends for laughs on the contrast between the moral superiority claimed for themselves by fantastically self-regarding characters and the sordid venality of their actions.

If Tony Blair is that stock PG Wodehouse character, the dog collar-wearing conman who sermonises ad nauseam before doing the moonlight flit with Aunt Agatha's jewellery box, Levy is a guest star from early Minder ... the shrewd little fixer with the gold Roller and the lush white shagpile (played possibly by Anthony Valentine) who hires Terry McCann to keep an eye on a soiree he's throwing for his fellow Rotarians; and then taps up Arthur Daley for a contribution to his favourite charity in return for a word in the shell-like of a mate in a position to put a few thousand Estonian videos his way for thruppence ha'penny.

His lordship no longer needs such a minder any more, of course, since for him the party season is over. Whether he has seen the last of the police outriders, albeit at either end of a black mariah rather than a Bentley Turbo, we can only wait and see.