Magazine article The Spectator

The Real Sickness Is Labour's, Not Brown's

Magazine article The Spectator

The Real Sickness Is Labour's, Not Brown's

Article excerpt

Fraser Nelson says that the governing party has lost its hunger for office - and is now unhealthily dominated by the mega-union

Unite and its political chieftain, Charlie Whelan Lord Mandelson seemed to glide, rather than walk, into the terrace bar of the House of Commons on Monday evening, where he was greeted as a conquering hero by Labour MPs. His Lordship had certainly done the seemingly impossible: helped Gordon Brown to survive Labour's worst election defeat in 80 years. It was odd enough to see the Prince attracting air kisses and handshakes from people who used to loathe him. But what was downright baffling was the idea that Labour politicians should have anything at all to celebrate.

The Tory MPs present in the bar that evening were, quite naturally, toasting Mr Brown's health, on the basis that Gordon's survival is intrinsically good for Conservative prospects. They waited anxiously for news from the meeting where Labour MPs were supposedly deciding the Prime Minister's fate. No Tory leader, after such a set of election results, would have survived such a gathering. But Labour had cheered its Prime Minister to the rafters, listening to the rebels in surly silence while banging the desks in support of Brown.

For this reason, it is unfair to blame Gordon Brown entirely for Labour's demise. Truly awful political leaders do surface from time to time; the question is what their parties do with them. In the last two weeks, it has become devastatingly clear that Labour's modus operandi is to flail around - and then do nothing. This is not just a matter of cowardice, as important as that doubtless is. There are deeper, institutional reasons for this collective paralysis.

For the once-awesome New Labour organism has contracted a disease, which will not only take it out of government but may yet finish it off in opposition, too.

The most obvious symptom of the malady was the extraordinary Cabinet reshuffle.

When ministers are chosen because of their malleability rather than their talent, you can be sure a party is in big trouble. There is now arguably more talent clustered on Labour's backbenches than on the front bench of any party: but Mr Brown does not trust his MPs sufficiently, and prefers ennobling his friends. In many cases, the Prime Minister now seems to regard talent as a threat.

His government, for however long it continues to last, will be a pathetic and tragic spectacle. We have a schools expert, Lord Adonis, deliberately miscast in Transport.

We have television celebrities, like Sir Alan Sugar, who is to be made a peer of the realm and a business 'tsar' even though he stopped being taken seriously by the business community long ago. We have a new Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, who declares that 'waiting lists have been abolished': when he settles in to the job, he will find the list stands at a scandalous half a million.

It is a sign of Labour's terminal illness that James Purnell and his allies are described as 'Blairites' as if they were members of a peculiar cult worshipping a dead master, a kind of political Greyfriars Bobby. The phrase 'Blairite' appears to denote anyone who still believes in the policy agenda - albeit unrealised - which secured three general election victories. The more Gordon Brown and Labour distance themselves from this agenda, the more the Conservatives count their blessings (and votes).

Crucially, Labour has now become a factional government in a way it was not even a fortnight ago. Mr Brown's attempt to build a 'government of all the talents' has ended with a government of virtually none. Instead of Tony Blair's Big Tent, which notionally had space for everyone, we have Mr Brown's fiercely defended military bivouac. His key lieutenant, Lord Mandelson, now runs a department so vast that ten ministers report to him (just five report to the Chancellor).

Post-reshuffle, Mandelson wields more power than any peer since Salisbury. …

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