I MUST declare an interest in the race for the British Labour leadership: a few months ago I put 10 quid on Alan Johnson (of whom more later) at 16/1.
For years, the hot political topic has been Tony Blair/Gordon Brown: now the story that has taken the Westminster Village into la-la land is the eruption of the Anyone-But-Gordons. It was exciting enough when an attack of the TB/GBs would break out and there would be tales of Gordon Brown bellowing threats at Tony Blair, but now that Blair has been forced to admit he's going soon, the ABG campaign has begun in earnest.
The Westminster Village essentially comprises the Houses of Lords and Commons, a few adjoining offices and studios, pubs and restaurants where politicians, hacks, political aides and lobbyists gossip and plot, and spin doctors of all kinds spread rumour and lies and TB's and GB's people brief savagely against each other.
Friendships and alliances in such a world are vulnerable to events: ambition breaks up political friendships, journalists stab each other to get an exclusive, and, of course, any dedicated hack will betray a political friend if it means getting his byline onto the front page. All these vulnerabilities are exploited by the spinners.
The Village helped to make TB toast and to crown GB prematurely. Now, while I couldn't stand Blair for a variety of reasons - including his grin, a determination to please that was often indistinguishable from dishonesty, his obsession with modernity for modernity's sake, his wife, their freeloading habits and passion for celebrities, his inability to organise his way out of a paper bag and the arrogance and ignorance about his country's history and constitution that led him once to try to abolish in five minutes the millennium-old office of Lord Chancellor - I'm frightened that he's going.
While I believe Blair was right to back America on foreign policy, I admit he behaved like a poodle with George W Bush. Unlike Thatcher, who used to beat up Reagan regularly, Blair - cursed with the desire to be pals with the most important boy in the room and who hates confrontation anyway - only rarely even said "'Scuse me, but-".
I admit too, that Blair was useless at first as Prime Minister. New Labour had never run anything. In olden days, MPs had experience of business, or the army, or trade unions. Blair's cabinets were dominated by lawyers, polytechnic lecturers and career politicians so ignorant about running anything that they didn't even know they were ignorant. They set Whitehall targets and were baffled when nothing happened on the ground except an explosion of bureaucracy.
But Blair did, painfully, learn. He learned that centralisation and throwing money at problems didn't work, and that his project of reforming the bloated and wasteful public services had failed, not least because of the surly micro-manager, Gordon Brown, who spent his days clamping the tentacles of the Treasury to the spending departments. Brown calls himself prudent, but he's a crazyand wasteful spender. Had Blair had his way, the public services might have been at least partially reformed before billions were thrown at them. But Brown had his way and the billions were expended for very little return.
Brown scares me. He has the reputation of being a brilliant chancellor because a) he gave the Bank of England independence in setting interest rates (good) and b) he is clearly a master of his brief (bad). It is his obsession with figures that makes him a terrible chancellor. Wishing to redistribute money to the poor, he has erected an elaborate structure of tax credits and benefits that only he can understand: neither the poor nor the ever-expanding army of lowly, frustrated bureaucrats with whom they deal can understand what the hell is going on except that the system is riddled with errors and unfairnesses, and that it institutionalises dependency.
"Our country is under threat from terrorism, our soldiers are getting killed, the NHS is in chaos and crime figures are rising," wrote an enraged woman to the Daily Telegraph on Friday. "So what are our rulers doing about any of these or other issues? They are squabbling like children."
And so they are, not least because Brown is emotionally a child and a lot of his Cabinet colleagues are now panicking at having a psychologically damaged leader. If Tony is gone, who will calm Brown down when he's sobbing or screaming, sulking or snarling?
Apart from a few photo shoots in Africa, where in espousing a form of debt-relief that rewards corrupt governments he has again been profligate, Brown hasn't a clue about foreign affairs. There isn't the faintest reason to think he grasps what Blair knows and is facing with courage: that the United Kingdom is in deep trouble from Islamist terrorism at home and abroad. Indeed Brown's main contribution has been to squeeze the Defence budget so tight the army is overstretched and soldiers are dying because of inadequate equipment.
If many ministers fear Brown, so do many English voters who resent stealth taxes and over-regulation and being ruled by Scots - not least because though Scotland has a parliament, its superior public services are heavily subsidised by the English taxpayer. Labour backbenchers with vulnerable seats are beginning to cringe at the Scottish accents of Brown's outriders.
The Brownites want Blair out tomorrow, for they know that the ABGs need time to mount a credible challenger. My tip, Alan Johnson, is English, tough (raised by a single mother, working-class, left school at 16), able, an ex-postman who climbed to the top of his union, personable, sensible and amusing. He's at 5/1 now.
If Blair can hold Brown off at the pass long enough for the ABGs to arm and train Johnson, Brown might have a real fight on his hands. I certainly hope so. As my friend Maureen remarked when I told her of the ABGs: "Count me in. Brown's a nutter."