Increasingly, it seems as if this government is losing not so much its grip as its reason. To quote Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: "Who are these guys?"
Tony Blair needs the support of the wavering ex-Tories more than ever before. Yet, although his conduct of the Iraq war gained him some points in the eyes of these unlikely supporters, he is no sooner home from the front than he hastens to attack them where it hurts. Without so much as a by-your-leave, apparently on a whim of fashion, he abolishes the post of Lord Chancellor after 1,400 years. Even before this latest rampage, he had gone out of his way to stuff the European superstate, the Dreyfus of modern politics, back up the nose of exactly that part of the population who might protect him from his enemies on the left. Less publicised and less important, but perhaps even odder, is his decision to commission a bill that will finally consign the hereditary peerage to history - which, for Blair, is synonymous with oblivion.
There was little logic in the composition of the old House of Lords, and the subject of how best it might be reformed has been broached many times by incoming governments. Every attempt was abandoned. Does this suggest to most thinking people that reform might be more complicated than it seemed? If so, the message was lost on Blair who, like a lover, rushes in where wise men fear to tread. Bingo! The ancient second chamber is gone and, instead, we are left with a curious amalgam of record-producers and early flatmates of the Prime Minister in an orgy of patronage reminiscent of the court of James I. A compromise born, one suspects, of a desire to move things along quickly left 92 hereditary peers in place.
Then one dies, the oddly named Lord Oxfuird (not descended from top spellers, one presumes) and there is an election to replace him. The country enjoys an entertaining, if rather arcane, campaign, and the winner is chosen. What is the government's response? To be amused as the rest of us are and to be glad of a painless sop for the traditionalists among our number? No, out comes the hammer from the toy-box and a bill is launched to ensure that no such election takes place again and that the tiny hereditary element, that flickering reminder of a less-compliant second chamber, will be stamped out for ever. Is there no limit to the humourlessness, the pettiness, of these people?
The advantage of the hereditary element in the Upper House, if one may be allowed to defend it in the present intellectual climate, was that a varied group of people were suborned into politics without any choice on their part. As the years went on, increasing numbers of them were living perfectly normal middle-class lives, as managers, doctors, dentists and so on. They were thus becoming more, not less, representative of the society outside politics and, although their lack of democratic legitimacy made it impossible for them to claim a veto, they could perform the useful function of making a government stop and think.
The point is that it worked and, when something works, to destroy it without something better to put in its place is Visigoth thinking. Instead of an upper chamber, we now have an echo chamber. A group of lawyers examining the wording of bills could do just as well for a fraction of the cost. And all because the government, like an angry adolescent, cannot tolerate alternative opinion.
What Labour seems not to grasp is that grown-up governments must rub along with both those who voted for them and those who did not. Like successful married couples, they engage only in the important fights. If the citizens who disagree with them may be left in peace without endangering the commonweal, true governments prefer it.
Elizabeth I made war on the Catholics only when the papal bull forced her to (and I'm a Catholic, so I can say that). Charles II refused to persecute Cromwell's men because he saw they wanted peace if he would only let them have it. How differently Tony Blair manages these things.
In the last analysis, his problem is a simple one. Blair is governing the wrong country. In so many areas, from Europe to his own sartorial taste, from his sad, guitar-playing longing for the approval of the 1960s generation to his contempt for the British constitution, he is quite out of step with all but a tiny minority of his fellow countrymen.
He does not like the things most British people like. This is a dangerous road for a politician. Mussolini was one who took it. He could not bear the Italians' lack of military enthusiasm and he imposed the goose-step on the army in an attempt to drill them into a warlike race. "I despise the Italians," he is supposed to have remarked, "and I will change them." It didn't do him much good, either.
Julian Fellowes, the Oscar-winning scriptwriter of Gosford Park, is an occasional NS columnist