The most breathtaking tricks are those invisible to the eye. A breathtaking trick has been played on us, and it is invisible largely because we have been made to see it as a natural thing. The trick is to convince us that an elected politician should be placed lower in the British table of rank than a hereditary monarch, and that all elected politicians should defer to any hereditary aristocrat. That was the major subtext of the lying-in-state and funeral, in April this year, of the Queen's mother, Elizabeth. It is also the major subtext of certain journalists who have accused the Prime Minister's office of lying.
This group of journalists - Peter Oborne of the Spectator, Simon Walters of the Mail on Sunday, together with the editors of those papers and the London Evening Standard - has convinced a large section of the media (the public may be a different matter) that its version of the events in and around Downing Street at the time of the lying-in-state and funeral of the Queen's mother is a truth that demonstrates a rot at the heart of the Labour government. It proves nothing of the sort. It shows, instead, the manoeuvres of the right, maddened by political marginalisation, reaching deeply (and successfully) into a well of atavism and producing a fiction.
That fiction is underpinned by three storylines. First, the Queen's mother was a saint, and her funeral allowed a willing nation to pay obeisance to that fact. Second, the government is defined, and wholly corrupted by, spin - the deliberate and constant effort, at the highest levels, to distort, misrepresent, gloss over and even lie about the real nature of the policies that the government pursues. Third, Tony Blair is an obsessively arrogant politician who wished to use the funeral of the Queen's mother to parade himself before the public for electoral advantage.
These three storylines have been well prepared by the media - in the first case, for decades, and in the other two, for years. They represent primarily the views of the right. But the left, particularly the far left, bears some responsibility, too. Because the left sees new Labour as politics and personality shorn of both socialism and substance (in fact, it can reasonably be argued, it is the more substantial for having rid itself of a formal and empty socialism), it is just as keen as the right on the narrative of spin, and of Blairite arrogance.
Because the right has no policy issue within reach on which it can win against the government (and, often, no policy), these subjects take centre stage - especially as effective promotion of such questions can gain victims, as Stephen Byers's resignation attests. Much of the media now try to portray this government as one in constant crisis, rather as if journalists were covering the melodrama of a soap opera. The despair of politicians with the media's coverage of politics - a despair shared by all parties, though it suits the Conservatives to be largely silent on the matter now, as it suited Labour up until 1997 - was reflected in an article by Charles Clarke, the chairman of the Labour Party, in the Times on 12 June, in which he referred to "pious and hypocritical" criticism by the media. But, as he must have expected, the piece became simply further testimony to crisis.
The question of who said what to whom about Blair's role in the lying-in-state of the Queen's mother remains unanswerable, perhaps for ever. The journalists' account (though it originally derived, it seems, from conversations with "sources") depends on the existence of a memorandum from Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Willcocks, whose office of Black Rod makes him responsible for royal protocol. This is said (by Oborne) to be a "long, detailed and scrupulously documented memorandum that revealed the details of how Downing Street tried to establish a bigger role for the Prime Minister". Downing Street's account relies on testimony by its officials, in particular Clare Sumner, a career civil servant, that the contacts between them and Black Rod were designed not to enhance Blair's role, but to discover what his role was, according to protocol.
However these events may finally be judged, what certainly did happen was a humiliation, through the ceremonies following the death of the Queen's mother, of not just Blair, but also three other prime ministers. The real scandal lies in this central, hidden and ritual humiliation. And the story is told here for the first time.
Besides Blair, three other prime ministers - of Australia, Canada and New Zealand - look upon the Queen as head of state. It is an anomalous position, which only Australia so far has tried seriously to remedy. The Queen is increasingly used to push the commercial interests of the UK, but she does not push the interests of her other "dominions" - all of which compete with the UK. She is therefore the only head of state in the world who works continually against the interests of states that she nominally heads.
Two of the prime ministers, Helen Clark of New Zealand and John Howard of Australia, came to the funeral (which was after the lying-in-state) directly from their own countries - nearly a day of continuous flying. Jean Chretien of Canada was in South Africa, and had to make two long trips to get to London in time. They were informed when they arrived that they would be taken by bus to Westminster Abbey from a pick-up point in Chelsea. Only the most strenuous objections by their high commissioners secured them permission to travel in their commissioners' cars.
Once in the abbey, they were seated some rows from the front, with an incomplete view of the proceedings, nearly two hours before the ceremony started. Some time later, Laura Bush, representing the US president, and Bernadette Chirac, representing the French president, arrived - entitled, as representatives of heads of state rather than mere heads of government, to later entry and a grander place. Finally came the monarchs and their consorts - not just, for example, King Harald of Norway, King Juan Carlos of Spain, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg, who actually sit on thrones or at least carry out duties, but also the likes of King Constantine of the Hellenes, King Michael of Romania and Prince Ernst-August of Hanover, who have long been redundant. But the point being made was that blood - royal blood - precedes election.
At the end of the ceremony, all were asked to stand while the monarchs took their leave, followed by representatives of the heads of state. The congregation was told to remain standing not just until the European royalty and their consorts had left the cathedral, but until their cars had cleared the area. Why? Nobody knew, or was told. It was protocol: Black Rod, the arbiter, had decreed that it would be so.
When finally allowed to leave, the prime ministers were taken to a reception at the Foreign Office, where Blair gave a rather apologetic speech. Well might he be apologetic, though responsibility for the slight was not his. Three prime ministers had flown halfway across the world to show respect for the mother of their head of state. With the minimum of courtesy, they had been consigned to walk-on roles. They had been given a reception at the Foreign Office and were then free to go. Not one of them had a conversation, a word or even eye contact with any member of the royal family.
As an expression of raw privilege, this is hard to beat. All were outraged; at least one vowed never to return to the UK. But if, say, the Mail on Sunday had known of this episode, it would have portrayed the prime ministers' demand to travel by car as an attempt to aggrandise their roles.
Some may object that this was a family matter, and that the Queen or her agents were entitled to dictate the arrangements for burying her mother. But the funeral was not a private burial; it was a state occasion, a public event, supposedly reflecting the monarch's role as the head of several democracies.
Against this background, the row over Blair's role at the lying-in-state appears in a new light. When Downing Street dropped its complaint to the Press Complaints Commission against the journalists it held to have distorted the events, the editors of the newspapers - who had agreed to accept that the Prime Minister himself did nothing wrong or improper - chorused that he had proven their case and suffered a grievous political blow. It was, said Boris Johnson, editor of the Spectator and Tory MP for Henley, "a ludicrous and humiliating climbdown". For an elected member of parliament to say this indicates the dimension of the trick that was played. This was a perfectly organised snub visited on elected men and women by the most cunning royal house in the world.
A snub - or revenge? Blair had, with Alastair Campbell, visited a snub of his own on the royal house at the time of Diana's death. Their phrase "the people's princess" seemed to threaten the future of the monarchy, because it undermined the royal family's public popularity and highlighted how Diana had gathered up, most of all in death, all the febrile adulation there was going. Now, their popularity recovered, the royal family (or at least their agents) were able to eat the dish of their revenge cold: as cunning epicures, they know it tastes better when left to age.
In one of his victory jigs, Oborne wrote in the Spectator - drawing deep on his study of poststructuralism and Michel Foucault - that Labour spin-doctors resembled postmodernist philosophers. Both, he said, deny the existence of a "verifiable, objective world". In fact, he and a legion of other journalists are the true postmodernists, in their ability to create vast narratives composed of selected facts, woven into reams of speculation and embroidered with distortions. These have become "reality": most of all, the "reality" that the government is based on spin and falsehood, and is now reeling, perhaps terminally, because of it.
These narratives imprison politicians and politics. The affair of the Queen's mother has shown how no government can now be expected to be heard when it explains itself. This was best expressed not by any journalist of the right, but by a man of the left, Kevin Maguire of the Guardian, who wrote: "The undignified war between Downing Street and vocal sections of the fourth estate over Tony Blair's role at the Queen Mother's funeral threatens to further dent public trust . . . "
The assumption Maguire makes without question is that the issue will end up being a crisis for the government. That is the sustaining narrative of the British media. The narratives are too strong to allow fair judgement. Yet democratic politics depends on fairness and on judgement. It is these that are being damaged, by journalists who are unable to realise what they are doing, and why.