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Leading Article: Stupid fibs, bad liars

Perhaps it is only right, in this year of panic about our politicians' probity, that Parliament should close for Christmas with a final flurry of lies settling like so much fake snow. On Wednesday, Tony Blair told Des O'Connor about the time he absconded en route to school and boarded a plane. "I think it was to the Bahamas," he giggled. This impish lark by the boy Blair might have lent a likeable edge to the cheerless prude his advisers fear we're growing not to love - were it not for the Daily Mail's discovery that the airport in question did not run flights to the Bahamas at all. Its most exotic destination in 1968 was, gloated the Mail, the Isle of Man. Then came the Prime Minister's cosy disclosure to Good Housekeeping that, chez Major, Norma goes by the petname "Little Grub". This was news to the lady herself. "We don't have nicknames for each other," she said. "What rubbish." How we chuckled! The week's other deception, from the Tory whips' office - a kind of multiple share application for parliamentary pairs - was taken more seriously. Yet this lie had, at least, the distinction of a good reason behind it. The need by Messrs Blair and Major to make things up in order to sound like human beings is more troubling.

What, pray, is the Prime Minister doing in Good Housekeeping? What is the Leader of the Opposition doing on Des O'Connor? Mr O'Connor appeared as surprised as anyone, but was reassured by Blair; once installed at No 10, he intends to come straight back, and bring the whole family along. This incarnation of PM as bloke in the pub was first brought to us by Major, Ordinary John from Brixton. It is no credit to the Labour leader that he seeks to reinvent himself likewise. An easy-listening account of Tony Blair is not real; Cherie Blair QC as editor of Prima is uncomfortably close to Hillary Clinton, the home-baked cookies expert. It will come unstuck. The Tory press, as this fine-spun Labour Party should know, may have indulged much of Major's faux blokeishness, but will be ruthless in catching Blair out. A sophisticated electorate expects nothing less from its MPs than the odd slick, expedient lie from time to time. What it will find so disappointing in these stabs at self-embellishment is their amateurishness. If your sister-in-law tells you her Christmas gift is just what she wanted, all will be well. It is only if she cannot keep her voice down when confiding to Uncle Arthur that she would rather die than wear it, that the problem arises. Blair could have said the plane was only going to Birmingham, and the story would have been better. Major need not dream up pet names to deny he sits at home counting peas over dinner with Norma. Yet these needless, embarrassing lies - or acts of dissembling, should we say - are inevitable, if leaders persist in turning themselves into Oprah Winfrey sofa fodder.

Tony Blair was elected leader as a dynamic, young, but above all brilliant man. He is being transformed into a cardy-loving ass. And now the Labour Party is anxious that Blair's "personality" is becoming a bit of a problem. Even the Spice Girls have a problem with it. Women voters at large, we have learned, are not so sure about him any more. In turn priggish and churchy, then smarmy, then bossy - this is indeed a serious problem. Yet it is one which need never have arisen, had he not set about trying to be an improbably well-rounded fellow. Margaret Thatcher made no secret of her dour Grantham background, nor did she ditch Iron Maiden mystique for mateyness. But nor, New Labour could counter, did we ask her to. Could it be that we, the voters, have muddled up democracy with the notion that politicians should be boys-and girls-next-door? Or confused the requirement that a politician be of sound character, which is not unreasonable, with a demand that he or she be a lovable character, which is quite unnecessary. As fast as we are calling for committees to ensure our politicians tell the truth, Blair may complain, we are requiring new and elaborate ways in which they are to be inauthentic.

This is not good enough. So far, we have had only one Prime Minister standing on a Little Chef ticket. Tony Blair still has time to call a halt before whole Cabinets end up on Celebrity Squares; his successors will find the task progressively harder. The price he will pay if, like a teenager trying to impress, he cannot stop fibbing, will be high. The cost to our political culture will be higher.