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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 December 2006, 09:33 GMT
2006: More drama than the West Wing
By John Pienaar
Chief political correspondent, BBC Radio Five Live

Tony Blair
Tricky year: Tony Blair faced a coup attempt and resurgent Tories
You may have read somewhere or other that Number 10 staffers - like politicians and media hacks throughout the Westminster political "village" - were all famously addicted to the US politico-soap The West Wing, and took the loss badly when the series ended in 2006. Why?

The main characters were all impossibly saintly and wise. The fictional administration managed, week after week, to achieve some triumph or disaster.

All of this was outlandishly implausible. Politicians are never more saintly, and rarely wiser, than the rest of us.

Governments generally find it hard to achieve almost anything, good or bad.

Escape route

They are more likely to find themselves a helpless witness to events. So the show was wonderfully inspirational.

But the real reason for Westminster's West Wing addiction may be far simpler.

Perhaps the wisdom, virtue and sense of power provided an escape from the vice, folly, and vicious political intrigue which characterised life at Westminster during 2006.

Set down in a screenwriter's synopsis, any studio would have dismissed the idea as outlandish.

The most truly extraordinary thing about 2006 may be the fact that 2007 could actually be more interesting
John Pienaar

The prime minister suffers, and survives, a coup attempt by previously devoted followers.

His once closest friend and most senior colleague, the chancellor, is blamed for orchestrating the whole thing.

The PM is driven to an emotional farewell speech to his party conference, and pledges himself to do all he can to bring peace to the most troubled region of the world before he goes.

But in the meantime, an elite squad of Scotland Yard detectives closes in on Downing Street, probing for evidence of high-level corruption (a link between political honours and political donations, no less), and the Cabinet is engulfed by intrigue as ministers manoeuvre to succeed the deputy prime minister.

Charles Kennedy
Charles Kennedy's private problems became very public

He, of course, is exposed having an affair with a member of his private office staff, and never quite recovers.

As for the government's opponents: the leader of the third party is forced to announce his addiction to alcohol, and is deposed by a mass mutiny of senior colleagues.

Two of Charles Kennedy's potential successors are forced to expose themselves, or be exposed in rapid succession, as gay (for which Simon Hughes receives sympathy and respect) and a user of male prostitutes (for which Mark Oaten receives less).

The new leader, Ming Campbell, flops badly, then recovers, but not in the polls.

Learning from Blair

Finally the main opposition party shows signs of recovery under a new, dynamic, photogenic leader with a keen sense of how to lead the country - if not all of his party - in the direction it most wishes to go.

For many Conservatives, this seems a case of taking any route at all that leads towards power.

For much of the country, it is the direction they are following already.

David Cameron has learned, in other words, from Tony Blair.

Throughout all of these twists and turns in Westminster's 2006 plot-line, opinion pollsters continually rush into the offices of the protagonists and announce that public opinion has moved barely at all.

True, the main opposition has overtaken the crisis-afflicted government. But only just.

This is clearly another weakness from the point of view of a studio looking for a ratings-triumph.

Extraordinary crises should surely provoke an extraordinary public reaction, shouldn't they?

Perhaps the wider public is less excitable than the folk of the Westminster village.

Maybe people care more about their jobs and mortgages than any number of plots, coups and scandals.

In any event, the most truly extraordinary thing about 2006 may be the fact that 2007 could actually be more interesting.

Cheeky Christmas cracker

There will be May elections across Britain, a new prime minister, and a Conservative opposition which has policies to offer as well as pleasing images.

And Scotland Yard may just bring their sub-plot to an extraordinary climax, or an ordinary anti-climax. Again, who knows?

For now, the year has probably given us enough entertainment to be going on with.

It may not have altered the nation's destiny - though policy on Iraq has undergone a significant and unannounced shift - but it was rather fun.

Maybe too much fun.

Even so, the news of a Lib Dem spokesman dumping his weather-presenter girlfriend and taking up with half of the Cheeky Girls might almost have fallen out of a Christmas cracker.

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