The Express has a power list and the editor of the Independent just beats Peter Stringfellow. But guess who is number 16

Two phrases - "it felt like the first time" and "Blair's worst week" - should be removed from the vernacular, not only on the grounds that they are overused, but also because they are not often true.

Garbagegate did not feel like the first time this government had waded waist-deep in sleaze, nor did it feel like Blair's worst seven days. Did the Mittal/ Moore week really damage the government more than the petrol strike, or the Bernie Ecclestone affair, or the Hinduja scandal (which took the head of a cabinet minister), or the Women's Institute speech, or the case of the NHS patient Rose Addis?

A Sunday Times poll last weekend showed that 60 per cent of voters now think the new Labour government is sleazy. But do people really care? The Sun and GMTV - litmus tests to a nation's concerns - evidently didn't think so, as neither led with Garbagegate on the Monday morning.

As Iain Duncan Smith said on GMTV on Sunday, sleaze scandals damage all politicians. The truth (as borne out by the Guardian's poll on Tuesday, which showed that support for the Prime Minister and his government had risen 2 per cent during Garbagegate) is that Tony Blair has the rarest of political gifts: an ability to rise above the effluent.

This PM does not walk on water, yet he manages to walk on sewerage - and still smell of new Labour roses. But as the Tories have demonstrated, sleaze has a way of catching up on governments when they least expect it, in the same way that a turbocharge kicks in as the engine's revs increase - one minute you're motoring along nicely, the next you have whiplash.

I was surprised to hear one of Blair's spokesmen describe the week's events as something cooked up by the right-wing media. The most damaging coverage was in that not very right-wing organ, the Observer. When your friend (Andrew Rawnsley) writes under the headline "The corruption of Tony Blair", asking "Has he [Blair] turned himself into the rent boy of No 10, cruising Downing Street, available for hire to any kerb-crawling businessman?", you have a problem. When the same friend then writes a version of that article for the Daily Mail, you have a crisis.

The media's impact is more slow burn than instant combustion. This government, with its instinctive understanding of the British press, knows that contempt for the Prime Minister cannot be allowed to fester. Expect Rawnsley to visit No 10 soon, for a quiet kiss and make up.

At first glance, Peter Mandelson's article in the Financial Times - "rather than criticise the US, EU states should . . . prepare to fight" - seemed like a simple job application to replace Chris Patten as the European Union's commissioner for external affairs. Word has it that Mandy has been so pleased with his rehabilitation via British newspapers that he has abandoned his earlier goal of becoming the ambassador to America.

The former minister's strategy of "better read than seen" is working so well that his ambitions are now believed to have pole-vaulted over both the US and the EU. With typical modesty, he now wants to take over the world - Jack man of Straw out and Mandy in as Foreign Secretary. Who would have guessed it?

There was a time when some women married for money - and security and love and all that. Now Joan Collins draws attention to a new trend (again, nobody doubts that she is in love with her fifth husband, Percy the Younger), which is to marry for money, but with the wealth coming in a different way. The Express, in a deal with its stablemate OK!, carried the first pictures of the happy (and about £1m richer) couple last Monday, and both the location at Claridge's and the guest list helped to make it a very marketable proposition. Still, you have to hand it to a woman who is almost 70 but looks 50, who can make a fortune out of a B-list cast, and who can pull a man half her age.

Read the Sunday Express's Power List 2002 and you wonder if the paper's editor, the likeable Martin Townsend, has abandoned all ambition of working for anyone in this town again apart from his current boss, Richard Desmond. The list reads like a David Bowie lyric - the sort where he'd cut up words, throw them in the air, then place them where they landed. The only fixed positions appear to have been those of Express Group editors and its owner, Desmond, who at number 16 was positioned 189 places above Lord Rothermere, the head of Associated Newspapers, which owns the Mail and the Mail on Sunday. Some may think that Rothermere, whose papers have more than double the circulation of the Express papers, wields a touch more power. But the Express assures us that, "due to the success" of his titles, "in less than 15 months he [Desmond] has surpassed other media owners in the power league".

Paul Dacre, editor-in-chief of the Mail papers (number 21), Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian (140), and the Sun's David Yelland (39) are all market leaders. But according to the Express, their days are numbered. The Observer's Roger Alton (226) is also in danger, despite circulation being up 6.6 per cent year on year.

The consolation for him and the Telegraph's Charles Moore (230) is that they wield more power, just, than Ali G (231). And the Independent's Simon Kelner (273) must seek solace in his trouncing of Peter Stringfellow (294). But in the end, modesty ruled, and the editor of the Express, Chris Williams (43), tucked in respectfully beneath the Queen (42).

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2002 issue of the New Statesman, The unusual suspects