Ever since Gladstone went to the theatre shortly after learning of General Gordon's fate in Khartoum, politicians have had trouble for taking their pleasures at the wrong time. However, this has been a slow summer for mistimed ministerial holidays. Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, took off with her caravan as war raged in Lebanon; the Home Secretary, John Reid, foolishly spent the May bank holiday in France as dangerous foreign criminals roamed Britain. Both redeemed themselves. Beckett pitched camp (or whatever you do with a caravan) and flew to the UN in New York; Reid was here to "take charge" as transatlantic aircraft were, er, not blown up.
But with nobody dead - except a few thousand people with funny names in the Middle East - the press had to find angles on the atrocity that never was. Tony Blair's Caribbean holiday, on a boat inaptly called Good Vibrations, was an ideal target. The Daily Mail, Mirror and Daily Express had front-page pictures of the PM laughing; at least he might have had the decency to look miserable. "Crisis? Yacht crisis?" was the Mail's headline. There were pictures, too, of Blair wearing floral shorts - "upmarket Vilebrequin shorts", according to Patrick O'Flynn, chief political commentator of the Express. Alas, O'Flynn, though well up with the cuttings, is no fashion expert. Those were last year's shorts; this year's "are definitely not from our range", a Vilebrequin spokesman assured the Mail on Sunday.
On Monday, the Mail had more outrageous pictures. The British have always had a thing about the public display of wet underclothes. Fifty years ago, Lady Eden, wife of the then prime minister, complained of neighbours hanging out their washing in full view of Chequers. Now the Blairs were in trouble for hanging out their smalls in full view of a long lens. Though "washday", for most, was "a chore to be completed as swiftly as possible", the PM did it "unhurriedly", as the Mail showed, while "bobbing lazily along on the waves".
The pro-Blair Sun didn't mention the holiday. But by amazing luck, the half-sister of one arrested suspect (a white convert to Islam) was a catwalk model. The Sun gave her picture a full half-page; the Mirror had her looking ready to drop the lower half of a bikini. She insisted she had never met her half-brother, but who cares? A white face, white cleavage and white legs to illustrate a story about men with beards and brown faces - what more could a red-top picture editor want?
Business better than usual
At the other end of the market, the Financial Times was equally mindful of its readers' special interests. "Anti-terror boost for duty-free", was its lead story on 12 August. The duty-free shops had been "shunned", but the airports had now announced that purchases from them would be allowed on board flights because their goods "were considered sterile and already screened for security purposes". So that's all right, then. Business not just as usual, but better than usual, because everyone will have to buy a new toothbrush every time they fly.
Do I hear you asking about the real story? Ah, yes. We got compendious details about the alleged plot, about how it was apprehended and about the detained suspects. We learned about the explosive properties of fizzy drinks and the elaborate chemical operations that can be performed in aircraft lavatories. We read of clandestine meetings at British mosques and visits to al-Qaeda training camps in Pakistan. We heard of men who kept themselves to themselves, which always counts as suspicious behaviour in newspapers. We were introduced to a "mastermind" who was held in Pakistan and who, being born in Birmingham, was "dubbed Mr Talibrum", and we could be certain that nobody in the world had ever called him Mr Talibrum except British journalists. We were informed by the News of the World that "scores of bottles . . . filled with deadly components of liquid chemical bombs" had been dumped in recycling bins. And we knew that, if the Sunday red tops couldn't find anything more plausibly alarming than that, we could sleep safe in our beds, at least for the time being.
I shall not get on my high horse about whether, with all this alleged evidence published, the suspects can possibly get a fair trial. Nobody seems to care about that kind of thing nowadays and, given declining newspaper circulations, it should be easy to find jurors who have never read any of it. But I have one question. We are told the authorities need detention periods of 90 days or more - with suspects not even told the evidence against them - lest premature disclosure jeopardise further security-service inquiries. So why is it all right for the press to reveal this amount of information in this case?
Perhaps, when they have finished with the Blairs' washing and supermodels' cleavages, the newspapers could tell us.