Magazine article The Spectator

Why Even a Recession May Not Defeat Mr Blair

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Even a Recession May Not Defeat Mr Blair

Article excerpt

It has been a remarkable year; Mr Blair seems to have rewritten the political rulebook. A year ago, three assumptions were widely held: that British politics would remain volatile, that the public would remain disillusioned with politics and that Labour would find it very difficult to make the adjustment from opposition to government.

The third point appeared to be self-evident. There had been a minimum of intellectual preparation on Labour's part; most of the incoming ministers had no idea of the complexity of the tasks which they would face. Mr Blair and his entourage also seemed to think that they would be able to maintain the same authoritarian control over Labour in government as they had over the Labour party during the previous three years, and that government would merely be opposition from a smarter address. There would surely have to be a rapid readjustment and a painful rethink.

That has not happened, nor - so far has it been necessary. Mr Blair would appear to have achieved something which eluded both his immediate predecessors, and every other modern prime minister. He has fused government and politics. For the previous 18 years, many ministers had behaved as if politics was something that happened only at election time, and a lot of them never seemed to be at ease with the machinery of government. Malcolm Rifkind often used to say that the difference between government and opposition was that `we have got the Maxim-gun and they have not'. But some of his colleagues never learned to point the gun at the enemy rather than at their own side. It is all very different these days.

As soon as they had won the last election, Messrs Blair, Campbell and Mandelson set about planning the next one. Unlike many of their Tory predecessors, they know exactly why they are in government: to be re-elected. That has provided them with a formidable political momentum, which shows no signs of abating.

It does not mean that they have avoided mistakes; there have been plenty of those, as well as a considerable degree of idleness. Below a thin layer at the top of the front bench, this is not an impressive government. There are a lot of time-servers and incompetents, and it is just as well that most of them are determined to stay onmessage and always scan their pagers anxiously for instructions; if they were to try to act independently, the results could be disastrous. Moreover, several ministers whose ability is not in question have done more than anyone to get Mr Blair into trouble. Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Derry Irvine: at moments all three of those Scotsmen appeared to be competing for the James VI and I memorial prize, awarded to the wisest fool in government.

The Blair team has also displayed a tendency which could yet cause it serious problems: it is not committed to honesty. Over Lord Simon's shareholdings, Lord Irvine's refurbishments and Mr Ecclestone's donation, a pattern has emerged. The initial answers were both dismissive and misleading, and in each case the truth had to be extracted with a forceps. Much of this stems from arrogance - why should we bother to give the Tories honest answers? - and if this continues, it will eventually be penalised. But thus far, prevarications which would have landed the Major government in endless difficulties have gone unnoticed.

This is largely the Tories' fault. The present opposition has tried to pursue such matters, with some diligence, but it is still suffering from the successes of the previous Tory opposition: the one which wrecked John Major's government. …

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