Rory's year on the funny side

If ever I need cheering up I only have to think of IDS delivering the line: "The quiet man is here t

It's been a curious year: we've gone from having an unpopular leader of the opposition who delighted in attacking the Prime Minister on anything and everything, to having a popular leader of the opposition who agrees with the Prime Minister on all but a few details. The Conservatives have managed to whittle their leadership contenders from two down to one, while Labour carry on with two. The only distinction between the parties is that for a few carefree weeks the Tories allowed their two leaders to disagree in public. The end result is that all the political differences are now safely confined to disagreements within the two main parties and not between them.

The election provided the electorate with a clear choice: whether to vote for a government that launched an illegal war in Iraq, or a party which supported it; whether to vote for a party that wanted to see more private involvement in the public sector, or a party that believed the same thing; and whether to vote for a party that wanted to crack down on immigrants and asylum-seekers, or one that said it already had.

In the event, it took the victorious Prime Minister just over four months to get from "I've listened and I've learned" (May), to "every time I've ever introduced a reform I wish in retrospect I'd gone further" (September). So who exactly was he listening to? The inference is, the only thing he's learned is that if he just listened to himself a bit more, he wouldn't have so many problems.

Meanwhile, for the Conservatives, it's Chico time. A wave of euphoria has gripped the party, even spreading to the recent opinion polls showing them taking a lead over Labour - an unexpected Christmas present for the Tories, who'd only asked for socks. Even by their standards of electing the surprise candidate (John Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith), the speed at which their new leader has been propelled to power (or at least, prominent impotence) is breathtaking. But then the Tories could hardly continue the post-2001 trend of choosing someone even older than the previous incumbent. That would have meant digging someone up. I can't help feeling that some of the excitement surrounding David Cameron merely reflects how awful his predecessors were, and the Tories' desperation to find someone - anyone - who can make the party attractive. Let's not forget the standing ovations IDS received for his conference speech only weeks before he was bundled out of the back door with a sack over his head. (If ever I need cheering up I only have to think of him delivering the line: "The quiet man is here to stay . . . and he's turning up the volume." One of the TV channels should broadcast that on a loop as a Christmas treat.)

But there's undoubtedly a fresh breeze in politics. Well, I say politics. Marketing, rather. As I was listening to Cameron on the radio the other day, my four-year-old daughter was running round the kitchen singing a song from her Nativity play: "Incredibly shiny, fantastically bright." He's incredibly shiny, all right. Time will tell how bright he is.

Watching a few of the Conservative leadership debates was, for me, like watching the weather forecast. You know, when you make a point of sitting down and paying attention, only to find that no sooner has the forecast started than your concentration wanders and all you can remember at the end is that there'll be some weather. All I could remember was a couple of smartly dressed blokes disagreeing mildly on a few details. Their voices, their words and their policies escaped me. (To be fair, the policies seemed to escape Cameron, too.)

I'm relieved that David Davis didn't win, as I didn't fancy having my nose broken in make-up every week; the arrival of Cameron at least gives me a new character to impersonate. I'm still working on him; but then so is he, along with a large number of dedicated advisers. What I hadn't fully realised was that apart from being tricky to do himself (he's a strange mixture: the language of Blair, the voice of Mandelson and the pursed-lip smirk of Howard), Cameron actually does Blair a lot better than I do. (And, in fact, a lot better than Blair does, now.) You only have to listen to his acceptance speech: all the talk is of opportunity, future, positive politics. It's absolutely Blair circa 1995. Like the Labour Party, the Tories have realised that they need someone young, charismatic and appealing (relatively speaking) if they want to win power; and, like Blair, Cameron knows that if you want to be prime minister, you need to be the leader of a major political party. Now all he has to do is change that party completely. If he can do that, he'll deserve to do well. But not one of the major issues in recent politics has been solved by charisma alone. Once again, a political party may have fallen for the appeal of what someone once memorably described as "the winning yesterday". Still, I suppose that does represent an improvement on their previous efforts, when they plumped for the losing day before yesterday. The real problems, however, are a Gordian knot, requiring hours of solid graft and toil to grapple with them. And who answers that job description, I wonder?

Near the top of Blair's Christmas wish-list must be that the whole Iraq thing will just go away. Nearly three years on, as Johnny Nash once said, there are more questions than answers. As I write, more concerns are being raised about the American "rendition" of detainees for possible torture. Despite (no - make that "because of") Jack Straw's denials and reassurances, this has all the hallmarks of another dark chapter in the mishandling of the "War on Terror".

The most significant event earlier in the year was the prising of the Attorney General's legal advice out of the clammy hands of the government. The document confirmed that there had indeed been a number of legal doubts and misgivings about the invasion, doubts which Blair swept aside, and which Lord Goldsmith managed to edit out subsequently. The old legal joke says that if you want two opinions you should ask two lawyers. Goldsmith is clearly so good he can give at least two opinions all by himself - he'll give you the legal advice he feels is correct on Friday and the one you want a week on Monday.

Still not enough has been made of the fact that the cabinet was denied sight of his full advice - the advice that was subsequently redacted into a two-side summary for presentation to cabinet and parliament, in breach of the ministerial code, which requires the cabinet to be provided with the full supporting text. Having played fast and loose with the intelligence in compiling their dossiers before the war, Team Blair played fast and loose with the legal advice in the crucial weeks leading up to the war. The fact that, as another year ends, this government still claims to have been "cleared" is testament to the enduring failure of both the opposition and the press. Better luck next year?

Rory Bremner writes for the New Statesman