How things have changed. Under the happy-clappy, caring-sharing Blair administration, all a minister has to do is tell a joke - not even an original one - for his job to be on the line. "Sack this clown", the tabloids demanded last week, responding to a series of jokes told by the sports minister, Tony Banks, at a Tribune rally in Brighton. The broadsheets followed suit, reporting "outrage" over Mr Banks's remarks, describing him as "gaffe-prone" and solemnly listing his other errors of judgement since taking office in May.
Mr Banks's offences on Tuesday night were to repeat a joke attributed to the actress Joan Collins, comparing the Conservative leader William Hague to a foetus, and poke fun at colleagues from both Labour and Tory ranks. With what might have been construed as admirable even-handedness, Mr Banks mocked two of the most self-important politicians around, Peter Mandelson and Michael Portillo, teasing one for his somewhat inhuman demeanour and the other for his militaristic posing when he was Defence Secretary.
What happened? Uproar. Apologies all round. Mr Banks disappears to Bratislava, to watch his beloved Chelsea play in the European Cup Winners' Cup, where he was presumably told to keep his mouth shut. New Labour's spin-doctors are anxious to avoid a repetition of those earlier incidents which caused so much embarrassment, such as Mr Banks's suggestion - oh heresy - that the England football team might not win the next World Cup. Or his remark that Paul Gascoigne, English sporting hero and wife-beater extraordinaire, is not the brightest person ever to walk this planet.
As for the episode when Mr Banks "was caught on camera crossing his fingers while swearing a ministerial oath to the Queen, the obvious response to this shocking piece of lese-majeste is "off with his head". Even sports ministers have to be on-message these days, cheerleading for England and Tony and Her Majesty at all times. This is especially the case when their observations, like all the best jokes, have a grain of truth in them.
I SYMPATHISED with Tony Banks over the finger-crossing because of something that happened to me some years ago at a rather stuffy banquet in Park Lane. It was in the ballroom of a swanky hotel and towards the end of the evening, after interminable speeches, someone suddenly declared, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Loyal Toast". Everyone rose to their feet - except me, that is - while the other guests on my table hissed that I should do likewise. "I'm not loyal," I protested in a rather carrying voice, and a waiter - in the circumstances, I'm tempted to call him a flunkey - promptly whipped my chair from under me.
I have never understood why people like myself, or indeed MPs with republican tendencies, should be coerced into making these gestures to an anachronistic institution such as the House of Windsor. Under New Labour, things have got worse, with Tony Blair babbling about "the people's Princess" - an oxymoron if ever I heard one - and a general atmosphere in which we must all pretend to like each other. In the absence of Jonathan Swift or Alexander Pope to penetrate this joke-free zone, I will have to make do with Mr Banks. The more I see and hear of the sports minister, the more I like him. And I don't believe that anyone, outside the cheerleading tendency which now runs Britain, seriously thinks that England are going to win the next World Cup.
WHILE on the subject of sport, I'm beginning to wonder whether prolonged exposure to it rots people's brains. Take boxing. Last night, the WBC heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis was due to take on the Polish contender Andrzej Golota in a title fight in Atlantic City. The pre-match coverage explored various aspects of Lewis's contest with the "Polish headbanger and groinwhacker", as one sportswriter elegantly characterised him, including the question of whether the quietly-spoken Lewis is a "genuine fighting animal".
Lewis's most recent fight, against Henry Akinwande at Lake Tahoe in July, ended in farce when his opponent apparently mistook the bout for a New Labour fringe meeting and repeatedly tried to hug him. This followed a contest in Las Vegas in February during which Lewis's opponent, Oliver McCall, collapsed sobbing. "How do you prepare for a fight with a man who bursts into tears? What do you do when you get in a ring and all the man does is want to hold you?" a bewildered Lewis is reported as saying, although both responses to the six-foot-five champion seemed perfectly reasonable to me.
For boxers and journalists alike, backing out of a fight because you can't take the punishment, or you're afraid of being hurt, is cissy. Unless, of course, you are a girl. On Thursday, in one of the most bullying radio interviews I've ever heard, the Today programme's egregious sports reporter, Garry Richardson, berated Derek Brammer for allowing his 13- year-old daughter Emma to take part in the first authorised female boxing match in Britain, scheduled to take place in Stoke-on-Trent that evening.
What would Mr Brammer do, he demanded, if Emma came home with a broken nose and a split lip? Mr Richardson painted an alarming picture of young boxers staggering home with every imaginable injury - a formidably eloquent argument against the so-called sport, one might think, until he got to his real point. "Boys are different to girls," he announced triumphantly, "especially ones that are only 13".
Later that morning, to the disappointment of Emma Brammer and her opponent Dawn North, the girls' bout was called off. Last night, in Atlantic City, Lennox Lewis versus the Polish groinwhacker was expected to go ahead. The winner? Double standards, by a knockout.