Not even an election can bridge the gap between Gordon and Jack

ABRIDGE too far: is the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election turning into another Arnhem for the political parties? Should the Forth Road Bridge be replaced or complemented by a new structure and should motorists pay astronomic tolls for crossing it or not? There are many views on these contentious issues and all of them are firmly held by the Labour Party.

When Scottish Secretary Alistair Darling was challenged publicly on the issue of toll increases last week, he was in the fortunate position of having the Chancellor Gordon Brown sitting beside him to tell him what he (Alistair) thought on the subject. Unfortunately both men were unaware that the microphone was live. "Dead in the water," growled Gordon, swivelling his jaw to prompt Alistair furtively.

"Qu?" queried Alistair uncertainly, suspecting a reference to the recent sad demise of a whale in the Thames. "Dead in the water!" insisted Gordon hoarsely. "The toll increases are dead in the water." Alistair dutifully relayed this information to the assembled hacks, who by this time already had it in their notebooks. So, on that they were unanimous. Or perhaps not.

Within 24 hours the record was put straight by no less a person than Jack McConnell. To the Brown/Darling claim that the proposals for differential tolls at peak times on the Forth bridge were dead, he gave the pantomime riposte: "Oh no, they're not!" To raise cash and cut congestion, there was a place for charges "and that might mean differential tolls". (Coded message to Gordon: "You an' whose army, pal?")

More controversially, Jack said: "I also believe in the need to pay for things." That must place him in a minority of one in his profession. There are Edinburgh taxi drivers now retired to the Costa del Sol as a happy consequence of Jack's colleagues' scepticism on this point. Yet his idealism did not stop there. The First Minister took the opportunity to declare his new status: he is now above politics. "It is difficult for me to comment on what was said by a local candidate, given that I am leader of a coalition government."

Let party hacks grub for votes in a by-election to an alien parliament in a far-off country of which we know little - that is no concern of our head of state and his Liberal Democrat bedfellows (cancel that metaphor, in the light of recent Liberal travails). What this does for the morale of the Labour candidate in Dunfermline can only be surmised; suffice it to say that Jack's contribution to the Westminster Labour cause has long been verging on the counter-productive.

Scottish Secretary Darling was baited on the bridge tolls issue by the King Over the Water, Alex Salmond, at Scottish Questions (which the BBC seems determined to continue broadcasting until challenged in court by viewers, under human rights legislation). Darling is now keen on a new bridge. The Tories are believed to favour a bridge modelled on the rustic structure on Willow Pattern plates, which Annabel has often admired in tearooms.

Sad to record, the First Minister's authority was subverted on another issue last week, when Gordon announced his support for a private residential college for business leaders in Dunfermline.

Sources close to the First Minister insisted that a Treasury janitor had courteously telephoned Bute House at least five minutes before the announcement to inform him of the news. In the face of growing comment anent Gordon's disregard for Scotland's head of state, Jack insisted: "Nobody is trampling all over my authority." That had the resonance of Louis XVI, circa 1792.

A more significant question arises: has Gordon also lost the plot? Is he becoming accident-prone? In the past he was Teflon-coated. When, for example, he made grotesquely incorrect predictions of growth, he simply extended the economic "cycle" backwards to, say, the Elder Pitt's first budget, and his figures were consequently vindicated. Yet making a speech in Fife, promising an extra 10,000 jobs the day before 700 were lost, is the kind of banana skin from which Gordon was always previously immune.

The point at which one's amused tolerance of the political circus wears thin is when the clowns try to engage in other people's real-life misfortunes. All the parties have rushed to proffer condolences and recriminations over the fate of 700 households in Fife devastated by the Lexmark closure, when everyone knows their real concern is with the job advertised on the ballot paper.

The Scottish Socialist Party is demanding a boycott of Lexmark products. Call me old-fashioned - even a party-pooper - but one has an intuition that the headline "Scottish Socialists boycott ink-jet cartridges" is not the harbinger of world revolution. Tokenism and buffoonery are not a consolation to people who have lost their jobs, but a provocation.

Meanwhile, the SNP produced a document understood to have been leaked by a highly-placed cleaning lady at Liberal Democrat HQ, revealing that the Liberals' very modest ambition at this by-election was "not to slip behind SNP". Alex Salmond declared the Lib Dems had "thrown in the towel". The Liberals retorted SNP support was "haemorrhaging". That is the language of by-elections. Opponents are "in meltdown" or "resorting to the tactics of desperation"; our party is "quietly confident" or "buoyed up by private poll findings".

Over all the other parties looms the unspoken dread that David Cameron may parachute in, on the eve of poll, to pledge nationalisation of Lexmark, four bridges over the Forth and reopening of Gartcosh. Dontcha just love politicians.