The Journal of Lynton Charles, Fiduciary Secretary to the Treasury

Saturday At midday, I stand on a cold hilltop at the northern, most rural edge of my constituency, and look down into the small, shadowy vale below. Beneath me are the scattered buildings, in stone and corrugated iron, the rutted farm-tracks, the wispy baler twine and rusted tractors of the large farm of Dark Moo. From a point halfway between the house and the far end of the vale, a long patch of white-grey smoke rises in a floating rectangle, pushing itself towards us in the prevailing north-easterly. There is not an animal to be seen.

Dark Moo is barely two miles from the bridge where I watched the floods last autumn, and the recollection brings a biblical feel to recent events. In addition, the papers are full of stern warnings about the fate of the American economy, upon which the rest of the world apparently depends. Not that we haven't been there before in the recent past, with that collapse in the Far East and the death of the rouble three years ago. But standing up here with the county veterinary officer, the man from the county NFU (whose name is, unbelievably, Giles) and the plain though sexy reporter, Sallyanne Bertoni, it is possible to think that great forces are shaping our destinies. I don't want to get all Prince Charles about this, but have we been transgressing some kind of natural law, and are now paying the penalty?

Later, in the local pub, a procession of people affected in some way by the crisis parade before me. I listen to them as Sallyanne takes down their stories: some of which are genuinely upsetting, some of which are simply whingeing about minor inconveniences. Oddly, no one voluntarily mentions insurance, though it turns out, on investigation, that most of them are covered. Even so, the demands for largesse from Mr Brown are unremitting. There are, of course, one or two fuel- protester types who want to run the "poofy, black townies who want to destroy the countryside" paranoia past me, but they are in a minority.

Very depressing.

Sunday In town for the weekend meeting of the military-sounding rural emergency task force, Colonel Meacher in the chair. We hear of ridiculous things: no visitors in the city of Bath, National Trust properties closed down in case someone infects the squirrels, stuff like that. My fellow task-forcers are the bear-like Elliot Morley from Maff, the winsome (if noisy) Laura Fitzluvly, a PPS at Smithy's culture gaff and - inevitably - Denis MacShane, who has polished his head for the occasion. Meacher briskly introduces a series of officials who report on the impact of restrictions. And it soon becomes clear that we are suspended between massive overreaction in some things and complacency on others. And, as Meacher says, there is nothing more difficult than giving a complex message to the British people. Try telling John Humphrys (who fundamentally believes that he would make a better prime minister than anyone younger than he is) that the position is complicated. Your guts would adorn the Today studio for a week.

Monday In the House, meanwhile, all they are interested in is the timing of the election. Which isn't surprising because, for many of them, there is nothing else. Imagine 640 people who don't know whether they're in a job come the summer, whose agents badger them every day for an assessment, and to whom journalists ask this question at every turn. The possible delay is driving them mad, even the Tories. If they're going to shaft the Egg, they want to get shafting, not delay.

But I think we should delay, because I am afraid of the unknown. The known holds little terror for me, but I can't tell how people will react if we push on, and I don't like that. I am aware that not being able to hold an election is hardly a signal to the world that all is tickety-boo in Blighty, but hell, all that means is fewer Japanese tourists. Now, there's a disaster that we probably could cope with.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich rule politics again

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