Diary - James Naughtie

Governments in trouble don't get nastier, but nicer. Lord Falconer was a fluffy teddy bear in the st

The myth persists that ministers are most troublesome in studios when they are angry or, in the case of Dr John Reid, apparently suffering from congenital dyspepsia. The opposite is true. Nice ministers are much more awkward, especially if they are called Reid. My latest encounter with the Home Secretary ended with the excruciating sign-off "Cheers, Jim". Apart from the fact that any exchange of pleasantries between Scots touches a dark and sensitive spot somewhere in Middle England (though the Royal Mail is grateful for the resulting business), it leaves you helpless, clawing the air.

I've been aware of this since Kenneth Baker hijacked an interview many years ago by wishing me "Happy New Year" in answer to the first question - thereby forcing me to reciprocate - and it is getting worse. Governments in trouble don't get nastier, but nicer. Lord Falconer was a fluffy teddy bear in the studio the other day, and I suspect that even now Alistair Darling is polishing up his amiable one-liners, rediscovering the giggle that's been suppressed for so long.

It is by this measure that we can be sure that the Blair-Brown business has reached some new nadir. We'll know when things are getting better in Downing Street when the Reid fangs are bared and bloody once more. I'd bet that we're in for a summer of saccharine pleasantry.

But it all depends on getting the right guest into the studio. Watching the job applicant have his three minutes of fame on News 24, I was reminded of the visiting Russian who smiled at the wrong moment in reception and was duly shown into the Today studio. He was then interviewed live by Sue MacGregor as a representative of the British Dental Association, an organisation of which he'd never heard and for whose policy, the subject of some row or other, he couldn't account, mainly because he couldn't speak a single word of English. Curiously, the giveaway was his gleaming set of teeth, which looked suspiciously Russian and metallic. We had a rather longer weather forecast than usual that morning.

I once had my own identity problem with the prime minister and foreign minister of Luxembourg, whom I spotted disappearing together into a loo at a European summit - I assume for consultations. I'd forgotten which was which. When they emerged I had to interview them both until one deferred to the other. Bingo.

Sometimes it doesn't work. The other night I was invited by my companion at a long and crowded dinner table to discuss the BBC's new Middle East reporting guidelines. I was eloquent, passionate, unstoppable. Until I heard a clang in my head as a penny dropped. He was a governor of the BBC. But very understanding.

At such moments, only music helps. I've had one glorious escape with it this week, hearing the violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen playing with an Italian pianist, Gregorio Nardi, and dealing with Brahms and Mozart as if she had the emotions of someone twice her age. She's 20. It was made even more enjoyable in that the concert, at a beautiful country house, raised money for Sane on its 20th anniversary. The mental health charity almost had to close its helpline last year - thanks to a decision in Whitehall - but has managed to keep it open, saving lives as a result.

This is the season of chatter. The gossip for miles around Westminster has an almost theatrical verve to it, melodramatic and exotic. "Peter was on the phone again . . . I'm told you could hear the door slamming from St James's Park . . . was that Alastair? . . . Did Dave tell the shadow cabinet? . . . What's Simon up to? . . . I bet it's at this conference, not the next . . ." The cabinet (and the opposition leaders) are like travelling players condemned to entertain night after night on a tour they know will end soon, but not when. Indeed, Tony Blair can be seen as Donald Wolfit, putting on ever-deeper layers of the motley and marshalling the troupe for another performance as the lights go down, the boards creak and the curtain goes up. It is a strange performance. As in a reshuffle, the parts change but the play remains the same. The Scottish one, of course.

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