If a man is drowning, having been plunged into the water from a sinking ship, you throw him a life jacket. It is the only humane thing to do.

After pulling him to safety, you might give him a warm blanket and a mug of soup before taking him to the nearest port, shaking his hand and sending him on his way.

What you don't do is drag him from the sea, use taxpayers' money to salvage his stricken craft, patronise him, dump him back on the crippled wreck, and sail off into the sunset hoping he will stay afloat.

Admitting MG Rover, the last British volume carmaker, has had its day has become the truth that dare not speak its name in political circles. The stakes have been raised because we are in the midst of a General Election campaign, so posturing, rather than political substance, has come to the fore.

When Tory leader Michael Howard trotted around Longbridge on Sunday, he was driven there in a Rover. And when Labour's Gisela Stuart goes campaigning in the hope of retaining her seat in Edgbaston, she does so in a gleaming red Rover. There will be many other MPs, and would-be MPs, doing exactly the same thing over the next few weeks.

Such gestures are meaningless. If Mr Howard or Ms Stuart hit the jackpot on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? I doubt they would be beating a path to their local Rover dealership. Nor would most people, because the inescapable fact is that although the skills and motivation of the Longbridge workers are not in doubt, the product has failed to impress the market. And like it or not, the market is all that matters.

It is the market, not politicians, that will dictate the future of MG Rover; and the market has spoken. The latest industry data shows total MG Rover sales fell by 17 per cent in March compared with a year ago. Sales have dropped to about half the level seen in 2000 when BMW sold Rover to the so-called Phoenix Four, headed by John Towers, for a nominal £10.

You haven't got to be a motor industry expert to know the game is up. In all honesty, the game's been up for years.

Venture capitalist Jon Moulton was vilified five years ago when he attempted to seize control of the company, turn Rover into a niche sportscar manufacturer, and lay off thousands of workers in the process. In business terms, it was a sound proposition but there was a public outcry: the heart and soul of British manufacturing couldn't be thrown on the "scrap heap," they said.

MG Rover is, however, a private enterprise and every day workers in the private sector are thrown on that same scrap heap. Their employers don't get, or seek, state intervention, like the £6.5 million loan offered to the carmaker by the Government on Sunday.

The Rover pot is empty, the management team having managed to fritter away BMW's interest-free loan of £427 million plus other financial incentives such as an unsold stock of cars worth almost £400 million.

Under Moulton's plans, workers reportedly would have picked up incredibly generous redundancy terms of more than £50,000. Such figures are rare in the private sector.

Now, under the stewardship of "white knight" John Towers, it is suggested workers will be lucky to get as little as £3,000 a head if Longbridge's Q Gate closes for good.

Those who cheered when Towers took control of Rover in 2000, backed by the Government, could be forgiven for feeling they've been taken for a ride.