The Premier, the Pontiff and the pursuit of worldly power

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The Independent Online

What was our Prime Minister doing in Rome? Does the Pope know something the rest of us don't?

What was our Prime Minister doing in Rome? Does the Pope know something the rest of us don't? Is he the beneficiary of secret information? Does he have any greater moral intelligence than, I don't know, my friend Herbert? Does he have more friends in higher places?

People who like to believe these sorts of things believe that the Pope is the latest link in a long chain of vicars directly attached to St Paul, who was himself appointed by Jesus Christ. Popes are assumed to get ex officio right of entry into Heaven. Wealthier than Bill Gates, popes can read about the difficulty of rich men getting into Heaven without blinking an eye. When popes say things they are really, really sure about, they declare themselves infallible. It all puts Henry VIII into a very favourable light.

The originator of alternative comedy, Lytton Strachey, pointed out the flaw in papal claims for special treatment. Some pope or other in the early Middle Ages denounced poverty being a necessary condition for entry into Heaven.

The next pope reversed the decision and made poverty mandatory. Frankly, I forget. It may have been the other way around and about freckles rather than poverty. Whatever the particulars of the case, it interrupted the legitimacy of the papacy and made a charlatan of every subsequent pontiff. Either the first pope was wrong, which meant that his elected successor and all subsequent successors were illegitimate, or the second pope was wrong and with the same consequences.

Let's not get detained too far by the theological niceties. Popes have been husbands, murderers and cannibals. Child-eating pontiffs? One of them used his chilly dungeon as a larder. How infallible can you get? But then, popes only made themselves infallible in the latter half of the 19th century. The real mystery at the centre of the papacy is how on earth they get away with it.

More recently, if the movies are to be believed, Catholicism has been dominated by the three Fs – flagellation, fornication and fellatio. This is not to suggest anything untoward occurred during our Prime Minister's recent audience. But these activities have a certain morbid effect on our natural respect for the rich and powerful.

It's also true to say that one visit to the Vatican can have the same consequences. That appalling place is so clearly a fortress of worldly power rather than spiritual enlightenment, any prime minister would automatically feel at home within its walls.

We're used to popes seeking temporal power; we can only hope Tony Blair isn't after spiritual power. The consequences would be unthinkable.

Hewitt and the DTI are talking a lot of hot air

So we are told that the temperature of the world is going to be six degrees higher in 97 years' time. It will be caused by carbon dioxide in the air. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) is telling us so today, and is basing a White Paper on the combination of these two facts.

But we should be alert to the fact that governments are unable to predict traffic flows in London over the next five days, let alone global temperatures a century ahead. Non-linear equations are notoriously hard to interpret, let alone solve. John von Neumann described the Navier-Stokes equations that describe fluid dynamics as "a maze where the walls change every step you take". They defeated his somewhat insane plans to control the world's weather in the 1960s. Patricia Hewitt of the DTI suffers from von Neumann's disease; she is not alone.

Anyway, here's Bjorn Lomborg, author of the Skeptical Environmentalist, on carbon dioxide's influence on global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's official estimate of the direct effect of doubling carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 2070 is an increase in centigrade temperature of up to 1.2 degrees. This is well below Patricia Hewitt's 6 degrees. If the increased water vapour in the troposphere feeds heat back into the lower atmosphere strongly, the range of heat increase moves up to 1.5 to 4.5 degrees (still well below the Hewitt thermometer). However, balloon readings and satellite measurements show very little warming in the troposphere (about 0.03 of a degree). In the absence of strong tropospheric feedback, temperatures should rise by no more than 1.2 degrees this century.

It may or may not be true. The only prediction we can make with confidence is that the DTI's White Paper will hinder more than it will help, and one can be absolutely certain this is so without even having read it.

The Tories will never be the caring party, but can be the clever party ­ without Portillo

They have discerned it well. The only way they can interest the public is by tearing their own head off and throwing it at the public. Of course we have to watch. Michael Portillo has attacked his leader so grievously, it is said, that a leadership challenge is inevitable and that luckless Mr Thing will go the way of all leaders, but more quickly.

First, let it be said that the latest polls putting the Tories within a point of Labour are disastrous for them. A broad coalition, one million strong, marches against the Prime Minister and still the Tories can't get ahead. How long, oh Lord, how long? The second thing to remember is that Michael Portillo – brand: "interesting politician" – is an astonishingly uninteresting politician. He's so obviously fabricated he cannot even be to politics what Pinocchio was to puppetry.

His 12-step programme taking apart his Thatcherism and reassembling himself as a Blairite is a cliché of image management. Turning up his record player in the Palace of Westminster so everyone can hear he likes opera. Bit of cultural conversation, bit of jail work. Who cares wins. He's no better at it than poor Mr Thing trailing round sink estates.

This wouldn't matter but Mr Portillo is mooted as Number Two for Ken Clarke's leadership challenge. This would be a shockingly bad idea. The dream ticket, as it's called, is Ken Clarke with a hardline right winger as his deputy. Ken Clarke and David Davis would have a good chance of winning (though not as good a chance, alas, as David Davis on his own).

Mr P is hampered by a number of serious technical deficiencies. The voice is no good. It doesn't connect with the rest of his body; it doesn't go down to the heart. It blocks somewhere in the lower throat and comes out of his mouth fractured and weak. It has no persuasive power. It doesn't carry conviction.

And the lack of conviction is his second problem. It became painfully apparent at a press gallery lunch before the last leadership election. The Tory party was going to be the forcing house of ideas, he declared. Nothing was to be written off the agenda. Everything was up for discussion. The most daring thinkers would be courted, the boldest visionaries would reinvent Conservatism for the modern era. The first questioner asked him about gay marriages. "I'm not going to answer that," he said, and a little to-and-fro went quickly back and forth.

"Why not?" "Because I haven't thought about it." "Why haven't you thought about it?" "Because I haven't had to. Next question?" The next questioner asked about the legalisation of cannabis. "I'm not going to answer that," he said. "It'll just create a lot of headlines tomorrow." But his least convincing moment came when he said, in his calm, managerial consultant sort of way: "We have to show we are passionate about public services." Not, you notice: "I am passionate about public services." No: "We have to show we are."

The second charge against him is that he's no good at politics, low or high. He hasn't got the skill to pitch an interlocking set of policies, and he can't get rid of a deeply unpopular leader without going public and thereby damaging the party even more than it's damaged already.

The Conservatives can never be the caring party. Even with Ken Clarke leading them (and that single positive hope for the party looks ever less likely) voters do not believe Conservatives "care". They can, however, be the clever party. They can show how to cut public spending and improve public services. Until they do that (and it isn't particularly difficult) they are dust under the wheels of Tony Blair's chariot.

NOTE: Congestion charges offer us a Labour echo of the old aristocrat who bemoaned the advent of the railways. It would encourage the lower classes to travel, he feared. He was right. But once again, easy journeying is to be the prerogative of the comfortably off. An annual income of, say, £150,000 a year makes uncongested roads pretty affordable.