The Third Leader: Ill omen

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Events, dear boy, events: Harold Macmillan's dictum about what gives prime ministers most trouble is proved daily. And, as with all human endeavours, it's the baleful, playful unpredictability that does it. Here we have one in a beset state remarkable even for him, sleaze to the right, revolt to the left, travail all about. Then, just as he tosses aside the newspaper showing how gaunt and grey he has become, and attempts a few moments of temple-massaging calm, an aide enters and announces gravely, "More bad news, I'm afraid, Prime Minister. Humphrey the cat has died."

Humphrey the cat! The timing is so acute that one harbours dark suspicions. For Humphrey marked the moment when the country had its first real moment of doubt about the Blairite ethos and agenda, when, not long after the triumphant 1997 accession, after rumours of a rift, he was disappeared.

The handling of the affair did not invite confidence. It certainly conformed to a subsequent pattern, with conflicting reports, the embarrassing involvement of the Prime Minister's wife, a staged photo opportunity for reassurance, and at the end, the implacable continuation of a ruthless policy, in this case a shadowy internal exile. And a nation asked: if this is how they treat our favourite cat, what price the rest of us?

Now, after surviving almost 10 years despite the allegedly serious health complaint that necessitated his retirement, Humphrey has made a Banquo-like return at a critical moment. Will this, neatly, dramatically, mark the end? Put it this way: if the Blairs don't acquire a puppy within the next 10 days, get your money on for August.

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