Magazine article The Spectator

The New Labour Party Is Over

Magazine article The Spectator

The New Labour Party Is Over

Article excerpt

A photograph was taken of the Blair Cabinet immediately after the 1997 general election. There is a bemused, nervous air about the Prime Minister and his colleagues, as if they had just won the National Lottery but weren't quite sure whether the cheque had cleared. But there is also a palpable sense of common purpose. That unity was finally destroyed last week, as Clare Short quit the Cabinet.

She is the 13th of the original 22 to leave since 2 May 1997. One of the 13, Ron Davies, quit through scandal; but most have been driven out of office by Tony Blair. The list of victims is now very long and quite distinguished. Many of the original band of brothers - including Chris Smith, Frank Dobson, Mo Mowlam, Robin Cook, Gavin Strang, David Clark, Ivor Richard and now Clare Short - feel animosity about the way they were treated. With the exception of Richard, Davies and Mowlam, they still rancorously fill the backbenches. Nor is that all. In total, approaching 50 former ministers remain in the Commons, most of whom feel ill at ease with Tony Blair and his style of government.

This is the significance of the Clare Short resignation. It has finally shattered the New Labour coalition that won power six years ago. The identity of interests that held Tony Blair's first Cabinet together was fragile, founded on an uneasy and distasteful mixture of power-hunger and self-deception. It has now broken. For the Prime Minister, this is troublesome.

He remains outwardly dominant. But the seeds are being sown for what could turn out to be his eventual destruction. New Labour has always been best understood as a strategy rather than as a political movement. In its early years, Tony Blair and his advisers adopted a method of 'triangulation', positioning the party at an advantageous outcrop between the Tory party and the Labour left. But in the last few months, stimulated by the war and culminating in the Short resignation, a tectonic shift has occurred in Labour party politics. The dissident left is no longer a small, fragmented and isolated patchwork of perhaps 25 or 30 rebels, mainly concentrated in the Campaign Group, always easy to demonise and dismiss. It has become a broader - and far more respectable - collection of men and women, stretching into hundreds. The anti-Blair faction has advanced from the fringes of the Labour party to embrace the mainstream. Meanwhile, an historic inversion has occurred. It is now the Prime Minister and the tiny coterie which flourishes around him who look eccentric and isolated. Some of his fiercest critics have served in government, and Clare Short is far from alone in wishing to bring about Tony Blair's destruction.

This new political landscape is doubly perilous because it has taken shape at a time when the government has become irreversibly split. Every major issue of the day is automatically a matter of bitter disagreement and festering discontent within the Blair Cabinet itself, let alone the wider Labour movement. Indeed, there is no reason not to spell out the astonishing truth: the Blair government is now as badly fissured on ideological grounds as John Major's fractured and now despised administration of the mid-1990s. But whereas personal relations within the Major Cabinet were as a rule cordial, its Blciiritc successor has been divided by bitter enmities and carefully nurtured feuds.

This helps to explain a central paradox: the contrast between Tony Blair's resolution on the overseas stage and his nervous indecision at home. The Prime Minister can act with comparative freedom in defence or foreign affairs since he is not subject to the restraints of his party. More important still, it is not easy for Gordon Brown to intrude into foreign policy. This is emphatically not the case at home. Here, on every issue of the day - constitutional reform, foundation hospitals, top-up fees and the single currency - the government is paralysed.

It was this melancholy background which gave meaning to Clare Short's hate-filled and in numerous ways incompetent attack on the Prime Minister on Monday afternoon. …

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