Christmas comes earlier each year, or at least the run-up to it does, and it has certainly arrived for the Labour government. There they were in a deep hole, with Hutton hovering, the public disapproving and the press baying, when along came Santa and gave them, all brightly gift-wrapped, a nice new bout of Tory infighting. Doubtless he could hear their delighted laughter all the way back to Lapland.
It was a great week to bury bad news. David Blunkett, the Home
Secretary, announced another amnesty for asylum-seekers in the secure knowledge that the entire press corps was spending hour upon hour pursuing Conservative members, demanding to know if they "had written a letter". What else do they suppose we do all day if not write letters? Ignore our constituents?
Meanwhile, through the corridors of Westminster floated the increasingly disconsolate notes of the Pied Piper, trying to persuade either rats or children to follow him in the numbers necessary to turn the infighting into a full-scale battle. He succeeded just as I was sitting down to lunch with a chap from the Bible Society. Never mind, Iain, I thought, Moses had trouble, too.
Any drama will do. In the space of 24 hours, I was rung up by three different journalists with three different versions of what I had supposedly told friends I would do if Michael Howard were ever to be a candidate. Was it true, demanded the first, that I was even at that very moment preparing to stand against him? No, I was even at that very moment preparing to feed my cats.
I am very glad to see my cats now, because there is a brute of a fox who skulks around in the depths of the night and I have taken to keeping them in, after running outside in my pyjamas at half-past-three in the morning when I heard a neighbouring cat in distress and saw the fox in the vicinity. The fox fled, but I have no idea whether it was with or without its prey. Its presence reminds me that, in the midst of all the uproar at Westminster, we are still, yet again, debating hunting.
I may hate that fox with a venom, but nothing on earth would make me adopt its own standards and inflict on it the cruelty of the chase - although I admit that, had I a gun and the knowledge to use it, I would cheerfully administer a quick end. The media, on the other hand, vastly prefer the chase to a quick and certain shot, and the past three weeks have given them some great hunting.
IDS calls a press conference to announce policy and they, great guardians of democracy and the disseminators of information to the electorate, ignore the issue and insist on their own agenda instead, which is 1) the leadership, 2) the leadership and 3) the leadership. They then castigate the Conservative Party for its failure to take the battle to Labour.
What I cannot believe is the ease with which they get away with it, every time, or the simplicity with which we play their game - every time. As often as the troops get ready for action stations in the country, the officers in the mess start a brawl. This time it cannot be called by any other name. The Maastricht rebels had a cause, the Portillistas thought they had a cause, but what on earth is the great cause this time? There isn't one - just a very rowdy brawl in which I cannot tell who is punching whom and on whose behalf.
Meanwhile, as the notes of Christmas carols invade our shops and streets with breathtaking prematurity, and the media din on about leadership elections, another sound can be discerned - the swelling murmur of an angry public who want an opposition, dash it. Well, we can give them one - and a government, too - and it doesn't need Santa: it just needs sense.