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Westminster watch December 08

Simon Barrow

Simon BarrowThe compasses of parliamentarians, especially those closely involved with the mechanism of governance, always end up pointing in two directions. On the one hand, they navigate towards agendas reflecting Westminster's supervening legislative role. On the other, they orient their bearers to react (along with the rest of us) to unexpected events transmitted in the blinking eye of a 24/7 media.

Often what demands attention is downright sobering, like the credit crunch - which we are now officially allowed to call a recession. Bad news is the basic material of current affairs, while good news looks suspiciously like PR fluff. Unless that good news is the optimism unleashed by Barack Obama's dramatic advent, which had politicians of all shades scurrying around seeking bits of reflected glory.

Gordon Brown attempted to take pre-emptive credit by predicting 'a historic moment' as the US polls opened. David Cameron got his defining soundbite in seconds after the result was declared, telling us that the president-elect was 'the first of a fresh, pioneering generation of world leaders.' No prizes for guessing who hopes to join that club soon. The Liberal Democrats sagely noted that Mr Obama is, well, a liberal and a democrat. The SNP even suggested that independence for Scotland was high up his policy agenda.

Okay, I made that one up. But it is true that a Dublin folk singer appeared on YouTube - which MPs plan to colonise like a new planet over the coming months - to announce that 'Barack's as Irish as old JFK.' One can only imagine what will happen when the real Second Advent occurs. Absolutely everyone will claim that their policy stance has been vindicated. Even the National Secular Society, who will tell us that Richard Dawkins doesn't exist.

All of which should be a reminder that in politics, as in life, the line between the sublime and the ridiculous is very thin, and most of us are thankfully nowhere near it. Except, perhaps, Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross, who caused public apoplexy on BBC Radio 2 - where nice broadcasters used to retire, and where aspirants now leave obscene messages on other people's answering machines.

Politicians couldn't wait to join the furore. Jack Straw sanctimoniously told us how much he disliked Ross and his inflated salary. MPs vented their outrage at Brand as soon as researchers had explained who he was. For an awful moment, it seemed as if everyone would be signing a motion calling for an execution outside Parliament (except this might have highlighted the severe restrictions on the right to assemble within a mile of Westminster following the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act of 2005).

Parliamentarians reacting to public emotion may seem like a good idea at the time, but sticking to the boring day job probably pays off in the end. There's definitely a parable in that.