Sometimes, when I find myself at another well-informed Delhi dinner party, I wonder who the audience for Westminster Gleanings in Calcutta can be. Bengalis after all have, by reputation, a keener political understanding than anyone else in India. There is increasingly comprehensive international coverage in Indian newspapers and internet pages zap us all with worldwide headlines. Political opinion and conversation are plentiful in India, but I was surprised on this trip by the intensive coverage of British football in the lead-up to the Champions League final last week. Arsenal and the extraordinary gifts of the great Thierry Henry received almost as much publicity as they did here. My son is the sort of Arsenal fan who has to turn off the television during matches when he cannot stand the pressure and weeps when they lose matches. I await with interest his post mortem of the match and verbal destruction of some of the more surprising decisions of the referee as Barcelona achieved their 2-1 win.
After three weeks in less connected areas of India, visiting grassroots civil society building non-governmental organizations from Jaipur to Muzaffarpur in Bihar, I am behindhand on events in Westminster. I remain convinced though, unlike the Delhi pundits, that Tony Blair is still far from his last question time. The masonry may be tumbling round the Labour Party and members may crash into new pitfalls of power engendered by unassailable political majority but Blair remains the best leader the government could have. His ability to walk on water or perhaps skate over mud is remarkable and it is unlikely that a new leader without his personal appeal could continue successfully to carry so battered and besmirched a governing party.
Whether the prime minister is prepared to address the issues dragging Labour down is another matter. It seems he would rather continue on his legislative way with little acknowledgment of rattling skeletons. The ossuary in Westminster's cupboards will of course bring him down in the end but not for the sake of the wishbones of petty sleaze. The constant memory and continuing presence at the scene of an unjust war abroad and more rightist and dictatorial measures at home will eventually burst through the layers of smooth damage limitation, but we are not there yet.
The Gordon Brown faction gives every impression of panic as it sees its moment for glory slipping through its fingers. Cries for a 'dignified' transition of power as the chancellor finally steps into the prime ministerial shoes ring hollow, given Brown's less attractive public image. At times like this his economic successes will seem less important than the fear of his frugal Scottish ancestry and beetling brow. Further blows for Blair in the wake of local election crashes have hit home: the disastrous admittance by Charles Clark, the home secretary, on the 'loss' of large numbers of foreign prisoners who should have been deported on their release after serving prison sentences and the really repellent thought of pudgy John Prescott having an affair with anyone, in this case his diary secretary.
A forced cabinet reshuffle has lost Clarke as a close and pugnacious ally for Blair and he is said to be furious although expectant of reinstatement in due course. The embarrassing thought of Margaret Beckett consorting with her more impressive foreign ministerial colleagues as she replaces Jack Straw, who has admittedly turned himself into Condoleezza Rice's lapdog, leaves Blair bruised but still not beaten. Interestingly, there is a rumour that it was on White House insistence that Straw lost his post owing to his refusal to countenance military action against Iran. Maybe he had a little tiff with Condy after all. Now that exotic creature is up against the good old labour principles and the drab image of Beckett, a person liable to extrapolate from domestic policy to the wider world and demand the obedience of other governments to her small-town principles.
Questions are rightly being asked about John Prescott's continuing and now relatively emasculated role as deputy prime minister without additional portfolio or responsibility. He is hanging on to his hefty salary and may yet manage to slip into a well-padded retirement, where a few knives in the back will hardly reduce his comfort for long. Of course, more knives may be wielded by his wife in the family haven. His wife has held her tongue and retained her dignity in spite of reports of her devastation over her husband's affair. The kitchen carving knife might be less easy to live with than the passing weapons of political life.
What of the Conservatives, their newsworthy successes in local elections vanishing under the newsprint on government and Labour party dramas' Well, David Cameron can reasonably trumpet his achievements but what do they really mean' A vote against a crumbly government; nothing surprising at this stage for a ruling party; rising disaffection for endless legislation and few goals reached, especially in health and education and a nice young alternative face on the television screens' David Cameron is in reality still only a smiling paper figure with good intentions and the trumpeting of the 'David Cameron' factor seems premature. 'Compassionate conservatism' smacks of New Labour repackaging and like fashion returning to the past, is currently short of any real innovation. On this one we really will have to wait and see what the new substance of the Conservative Party is, or indeed if it has any. There is nothing like being a popular new opposition leader with a bit of a following to put the smile on the face of a young man.
Political drama ebbs and flows but the inexorable legislative tank of this government rolls on and the logic behind the laws does sometimes defy good sense. Have other travellers experienced the latest customs regulations on imports of mangoes into this country' We all, if we can, at this time of year carry as many mangoes to friends and relatives as weight restrictions allow and last week I was given a 5-kilo box of the best alphonsos for the delectation of my mango -loving family. At Heathrow airport I discovered that DEFRA, the department for environment, food and rural affairs, has a new regulation on the importation of mangoes into the country.
Now work this one out if you can. Mangoes are no longer permitted because of the risk of mango weevil, this in a country where growing mangoes is as likely as hens' teeth. As a concession, however, one person is allowed to bring in not more than 2 kilos. If you have a 5-kilo box, it will not be weighed if in fact you are two people travelling.
You are not allowed to take your allotted 2 kilos out of you 5-kilo box if you are one person, it is confiscated in toto and everything that is confiscated is incinerated. I actually called DEFRA which appeared not to understand why it had its own regulations and whose only answer was that there were similar restrictions on importing fish. Fish is in fact strictly not allowed due to possibility of some other disease, but in reality you may import it as a concession so long as you carry no more than 1 kilo per person. I mean really, I despair.