I never imagined I'd find myself feeling sorry for lawyers

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DID you see the mugshots last week of people who earn hundreds of thousands of pounds from the state for hanging out with terrorists, drug dealers and serial killers? There they were, looking down their noses at the rest of us while earning pots of public money which they recklessly spend on Porsches, holidays in the Caribbean, and sumptuous fittings for the loos of their swanky London homes. Some of them also wear silly wigs, which made great photospreads on the inside pages of newspapers.

This, at least, is what we were supposed to think. The men and women in question turned out to be the barristers and solicitors who earned most from legal aid in 1996-7 and the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, said his decision to authorise publication of the list in answer to a parliamentary question was motivated by his commitment to freedom of information. But this is far from being the beginning and end of the story. The amounts included VAT, which self-employed people like lawyers - and newspaper columnists - are forced to collect on the government's behalf and pass on to HM Customs & Excise. Having wasted a morning filling in a VAT return myself last week, I was not fooled for a moment by this transparent device to make barristers' earnings look 17.5 per cent higher than they really are. But the Government was probably correct in its assumption that this point would be lost on people who have never had to wrestle with the arcane workings of the VAT system.

The amounts also contained expenses incurred by the lawyers, and in some cases covered work which had been done over a number of years. Ministers had to admit that the figures should not be seen as a measurement of annual income, but insisted they were an accurate indication of the amount of public money received by leading barristers and law firms. This is not to say that the Government cares about the astronomical cost of going to law in this country. What it is worried about is the bill for poor people who need representation at the state's expense in civil or criminal cases.

Ministers like Tony Blair, Jack Straw and Lord Irvine - all barristers themselves - know perfectly well what lawyers charge for their services and how much top members of the profession can make. Lord Irvine, whose salary is 40 per cent higher than that of the Prime Minister, was quick to spot the talents of young Cherie Booth, who is now said in admiring profiles to earn in the region of pounds 200,000 a year. I don't know if this figure is correct but I haven't heard the Prime Minister complain recently that his wife charges too much.

It would be no bad thing if the Government were to set up an inquiry into why lawyers' fees are so high, as long as any recommendations it came up with did not restrict access to the law. That is what the current proposals on legal aid are likely to do, even though it is already very difficult to get assistance unless you are absolutely on your uppers. What last week's exercise proves, once again, is the Government's fondness for soft targets. I never imagined I'd find myself feeling sorry for QCs, of all people. Is this what the Government has in mind when it bangs on about thinking the unthinkable?

AT A PARTY the other night, I met a man who edits a magazine called Men's Health. I've seen it on news-stands and I was curious to know who his readers might be, so I asked him. "Anxious men in their 30s" was his reply, and I couldn't help pointing out that almost all the men I know are anxious about something or other, regardless of their age or state of health. In fact, most of my single women friends have had the same experience as myself, which is going on dates which turn into something resembling an audition.

Do I like living alone? Would I consider getting married again? Do I get on well with ex-boyfriends? Have I really never wanted children? How old was I when I had my first sexual fantasy? (Actually, that wasn't on a date but it did make for an interesting evening.) It's quite common these days for a woman to sit in a restaurant, trying to decide between the chicken tikka masala and a prawn dhansak, while the man on the other side of the table appears to be running through a checklist of attributes for a potential life partner.

When I mentioned this to the editor of Men's Health, his eyes lit up and he asked if I'd like to write an article for the magazine. I'm not sure about this but it confirms something I've susp-ected for a while. Bridget Jones' Diary may be a neat idea for a book, but the women in it, with their anxieties about drinking too much and boyfriends, already strike me as an anachronism. Men, on the other hand, seem to worry more and more. Perhaps this explains a headline I noticed last week, baldly announcing the news that "Pill for impotence outsells Prozac".

YOU may have noticed that I have tried to avoid mentioning last week's anniversary of the general election, mainly because Tony Blair's first year as Prime Minister has been so disappointing. I accept that I'm in a minority, according to opinion polls, but I was astounded the other night when someone asked me, apparently in a spirit of genuine inquiry, whether Tony Blair is sexy. When I shook my head, the men on either side of me at dinner - an ex-MP and one of the present lot - almost fell off their chairs in astonishment. Our mutual incomprehension must have been comical to watch as they fired questions and I batted them back, explaining that earnestness is seldom attractive to women.

I can't help wondering if I've stumbled on another triumph for New Labour's spin doctors here. Have they been wandering the corridors of Westminster for the last 12 months, stopping Labour MPs and whispering in their ears, "Don't you think Tony's gorgeous?" It's hard to think of another explanation, unless the message is wired into their pagers. After a year in office, the Prime Minister may walk on water But I seriously doubt whether he sets many female pulses racing.

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