LONDON -- The Brits seem to have more fun in their politics than we do -- more eccentric personalities, steamier scandals and their newspapers don't take themselves or the scandals as seriously as ours do. But there's no shortage of eccentric personalities and scandals, some steamier than others.
Boris Johnson, the new mayor of London, is stealing headlines from Gordon Brown, the dour Presbyterian prime minister bequeathed by Tony Blair who can't screw up the courage to call the parliamentary elections everyone knows are coming.
This give "Boris the Menace" his opening to be the talk of the town. He tools about London on his bicycle, drawing oohs and aahs for his informality, dropping bon mots in his wake and putting a smiley face on his fellow conservatives. Grumpy Gordon Brown and the Labor Party look old-fashioned, dowdy and well behind the curve. Last month, the new mayor and the Tories gave Labor the worst drubbing in local elections in 40 years.
Prime Minister Brown, who hasn't yet celebrated a year in office, is dismissed as a loser in the mold of John Major, the last Conservative prime minister, who was buried in the Labor landslide of '97. Cherie Blair has added to his grief with unflattering recollections in the serialization of her memoirs. So has Tony Blair's deputy prime minister, who scorns the new prime minister as "prickly," with a temper that can "go off like a bloody volcano." From dour to deadly in only a moment.
Boris the Menace is a television personality, literally. He was a regular in a popular satirical revue -- not exactly John Cleese, but he has a gift for deadly satire. David Runciman of the Guardian newspaper draws comparisons to our politicians, placing Brown among Al Gore, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton as pols uncomfortable in their skin: "So he is forced to tour the daytime-TV sofas trying to show his human side, and ends up revealing how uncomfortable he is with the politics of self-revelation." Photographers frame him mercilessly against signs such as "exit" and "way out." It's enough to give everyone Labor pains.
When Labor lost big in an important parliamentary special election the other day, the shortcomings of party and leader accumulated quickly -- "piled up like corpses," one commentator put it. Tony Blair, by contrast, was such a popular prime minister in his heyday that even when the bureaucracy ballooned to full bloat, the voters refused to punish him. The class enemy now is not the fat cat in his club chair indulging in port and cigar, observes the Daily Telegraph, but "the over-large, over-centralized ... collection of bureaucrats, politicians and officials (who) have done well under Labor. They are paid out of our taxes, their pensions are protected, they can retire earlier than the rest of us, and they increasingly make the decisions that affect our lives without taking our views into account." (Sound familiar?)
No wonder the British voter yearns for change to believe in. The idea of reform of the welfare state, the source of much of the nation's headaches, gets kind words. Ian Duncan Smith, the onetime Tory leader, rails against absent fathers, whose abandoned families cost the government $43 billion annually. Other Tories preach greater parental control over their children's education.
David Cameron, the current Tory leader dismissed only yesterday as "a fop and a fool," has thus been gaining gravitas. Labor members of Parliament, who thought they could ride the gravy train forever, sense change is coming, like it or not. Brown becomes a Rorschach for everything bad.
But there's nothing like a rowdy English sex scandal to knock politics off the front page, and there's a whopping good one playing now. A government intelligence officer was forced to resign after his wife was exposed as a prostitute and revealed to have taken part in a "Nazi-style orgy" with Max Mosley, the Formula One auto-racing chief.
This scandal couldn't have more juice, or make more steam. Max Mosley is the son of Sir Oswald Mosley, the wartime fascist leader and pal of Hitler. His mother, Diana Mitford, admired Hitler, too, and der fuehrer was a wedding guest when she married Max's father at the home of Joseph Goebbels.
The orgy was videotaped by one of five hookers employed for the evening, catching Mosley in his birthday suit in a mock concentration camp, bound in chains by a lady in a Luftwaffe uniform, shouting imprecations at him. Mosley says it was all a private matter. The tabloids don't agree -- and offer 24-7 comic relief from serious matters of state. This renders White House romps and airport men's room tap-dancing pretty tame stuff.