Is the Labour Party staggering towards its doom?
That may be a melodramatic question, but the fact remains that there is a growing number of level-headed Labour MPs who fear for the party’s future under its present leadership.
Perhaps the most telling comment came from veteran Labour backbencher David Winnick, who is certainly not given to sensationalism. He said, in reference to the Sleaford and North Hykeham by-election: “It was an appalling result for Labour. If we were to continue in this way then the indications are 2020 will be an electoral disaster and the possibility of a Labour government very remote indeed.”
Strong stuff. But nonetheless, the true feelings of many worried Labour MPs. Labour’s slide to fourth at Sleaford, below even Ukip and the Liberal Democrats, was certainly a grim result for them. What they should do, but are probably incapable of, is to reduce drastically the influence of the trade unions in the leadership election process, and give MPs a far bigger say.
That way, they would get a leader that backbenchers would generally support and not one who is despised by large swathes of them.
Meanwhile, there were jitters at Conservative HQ that Sleaford might replicate the disaster for them at Richmond Park. There was a huge sigh of relief when the Tories won comfortably. But all the parties should be worried about the upsurge of Ukip at Sleaford. They can no longer be ignored.
• There was never going to be the prospect the maverick Boris Johnson would suddenly, or even ever, mutate into your typical tight-lipped, po-faced Foreign Secretary who would never say anything disobliging, even if true, about a dodgy ally with whom the UK was desperate to maintain good relations.
So why did Theresa May, who knows all about Boris, decide to give him this highly sensitive job? Did she want a gust of fresh air to blow through the fusty corridors of the Foreign Office? If that was her desire, then it was a high-risk plan.
Or did she want to enrage former Justice Secretary Michael Gove whose savage remarks about Boris cut him out of the Tory leadership race? I don’t think so - May is far too wise and grown-up a politician to indulge in such childish fourth-form revenge.
Now, within weeks of the arrival of the new administration, May has had to inflict a sharp rap on Boris’ knuckles for his critical comments about the Saudi Arabian regime, which everyone knows to be true, but which you do not expect a Foreign Secretary to utter. Perhaps, perversely, she actually wanted this to happen.
Boris did not apologise - everyone would have known how meaningless and hollow that would have been. Although admittedly his subsequent remarks in Bahrain were far more conciliatory.
May can hardly complain. She appointed him, knowing what sort of man he was. Perhaps the wisest comment has come from an ex-Tory Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind: “A Foreign Secretary is either boring, or dangerous. And Boris is certainly not boring.”
• Is it too fanciful to suggest that there might be something a little sinister about the Chinese purchase of the Chequers local pub, the Plough. I am not sure that it is.
The Chinese are notorious for placing electronic bugs wherever they can. Surely, it would be a huge advantage to them to listen into conversations involving the Prime Minister, and also visitors to Chequers when they call in the pub for a pint.
Once, in a Beijing hotel we were being briefed by a British diplomat about Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s activities the following day. Suddenly, the diplomat raised his voice to what seemed an unnecessarily high volume, before dropping it down again.
The diplomat rightly assumed that the Chinese would be bugging this meeting, so since he wanted them to know what he was saying, he raised his voice at a crucial point.
Within a few minutes, a Chinese official phoned in to perform a U-turn and agree with the diplomat’s view. He had plainly been eavesdropping.
It may not be practical to put up in the Chequers pub notices bearing the old wartime slogan, ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’ but drinkers should nevertheless be careful what they say.
• Is the portly Labour MP Keith Vaz morphing into an unattractive amalgam of Scrooge and Jamie Oliver this Christmas?
He has been urging that parliamentary cafeterias should stop selling such delicacies as Club biscuits and Victoria sponge cakes to ensure the overall Westminster waistline is kept in trim. What a cheek!
We get enough unwanted lectures from the irritating Oliver telling us what and what not to eat without Vaz jumping aboard the nanny bandwagon.
Politicians who have major decisions to take on a daily basis about running the country should at least be free to enjoy what they want to eat at teatime.
If Vaz wants to lay off these treats, well good luck to him. But grown men and women should not have to tolerate finger-wagging, oh-so-trendy politically correct admonitions from their fellows.
Let them eat, drink and be merry, not only at Christmas, but at any time of year.
• How refreshing it is that the Prime Minister is refusing to emulate some of her predecessors who quite blatantly and inappropriately used their Christmas cards as an ego-trip by imposing photographs of themselves and their families on them.
These have included Harold Wilson, Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron and John Major.
You might have thought that even self-obsessed politicians may for once have discarded their me-me-me attitude for a religious event. Apparently not.
Happily, Theresa May has bucked that trend and has chosen some delightful Christmassy paintings by schoolchildren for her cards. Good for her - I hope that sets a new trend.
Meanwhile, I hear George Osborne had to sign more than 1,000 cards every Christmas when he was Chancellor. That operation was spread over two days. Couldn’t the Government purchase a cheap printing machine to avoid such a chore?