Put simply, the country is in the grip of a constitutional crisis. That may sound overheated: there are no judges hanging from lamp-posts, no tanks rolling down Whitehall. Yet the phrase is not mine. It is the word of the hour among that most restrained set - the mandarin class. In the past week, I have heard from three different and wholly credible sources that Britain's senior civil servants, present and former, are shocked at what they see as a gross breakdown in our system of government.
Special report: Labour party
Tony Blair's survival is an affront to our constitution
Those with the power to remove the Labour leader must act
Monday September 13, 2004
Today the political soap opera goes on tour. It's the start of the conference season - four weeks of travelling theatre, farce and melodrama. One storyline will loom larger than all others.
It will not be the traditional contest of Labour versus Conservative, doing battle one last time before they face each other in a general election. With the Tories apparently as weak now as they were in 1997, their intrigues are reduced to the status of a subplot. No, the central drama will be the one that dominated last week and was ramped up again over the weekend (not least by Stephen Byers's nomination of his chum Alan Milburn as a future PM). We are talking, of course, about the struggle between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
It's now routine to describe this saga as more soapy than all the rest - and what could be more EastEnders than a 20-year tussle between two friends who become deadly rivals? It's appealing to see things this way, but also badly mistaken. For soaps have two defining characteristics. First, they do not matter. Second, the audience are passive observers, unable to change the course of action played out on screen. Neither of those applies to the Blair-Brown saga.
The question of the Labour leadership does matter. It obviously matters to all those who care about the party and wish to see it thrive: such severe tension in the high command cannot be healthy, especially in the months lead ing up to an election. But the misgivings about Blair should matter to a wider group too: those who wish to see centre-left politics in Britain flourish.
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Last week's talk of Milburn's mission to generate fresh policies and draft a radical manifesto could not conceal - indeed it drew attention to - the fact that the prime minister has looked for a long time like a man who has run out of ideas. He is not able to sketch a clear picture of the kind of country Britain should become, nor even to set out a few core principles by which all political choices should be decided.
Perhaps it is the result of two years spent ensuring his own survival, put in jeopardy by the war in Iraq, but he is hopelessly short-termist. His Downing Street focuses on getting through the day, and surviving tomorrow morning's headlines, rather than on executing a steady, strategic plan for the nation.
The consequence is that while the government, thanks in part to Tory weakness, may keep winning tactical victories, it is not making the ground-shifting changes that leave a lasting legacy. That is not to say Labour has not done, and does not continue to do, good things - on child poverty, public services and employment - but that these risk being rolled back the moment the government (eventually) falls. Labour's approach is not being entrenched, no progressive consensus is being forged which might turn a series of laudable measures into an outlook that becomes the common sense of the age - and which cannot be undone for a generation.
There is little that Blair can do about this. As he is said to have recognised earlier this year, he has simply lost public trust - essential in forging a consensus. He stirs too much scepticism, even cynicism, to hope to articulate an over-arching vision. One Labour stalwart puts it more practically: "Tony can win an election. But what if we ask people to vote for the European constitution? Or for a tax rise? Or another war?" After Iraq, Blair is so distrusted, he will not be followed again.
The trust question leads to a concern that should transcend left and right. It is far bigger than party politics. Put simply, the country is in the grip of a constitutional crisis. That may sound overheated: there are no judges hanging from lamp-posts, no tanks rolling down Whitehall. Yet the phrase is not mine. It is the word of the hour among that most restrained set - the mandarin class. In the past week, I have heard from three different and wholly credible sources that Britain's senior civil servants, present and former, are shocked at what they see as a gross breakdown in our system of government.
The way they see it, Blair clearly misled the country into war. He insisted that it was "beyond doubt" that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction - even though, as the Butler report made clear, the intelligence supplied to him was packed with doubt. Butler, a sultan of the mandarinate, was, by all accounts, amazed that, at his post-report press conference, he was never asked the direct question: should the prime minister resign? Had he been asked, the former cabinet secretary would have given a non- committal answer that could have proved devastating.
The Sir Humphreys have waited for each of the checks and balances of our unwritten constitution to do its work and ensure the PM is held accountable. They expected the cabinet and then parliament to restrain the PM, but both rolled over. The mandarins half-expected the press to succeed where the official estates had failed. The press has done much - but, partly chastened by the Hutton experience, has never fully followed through.
The establishment, including the judiciary, is contemplating the fact that a prime minister with a large majority can more or less do anything he likes. All those constitutional brakes are impotent if he is determined enough. And Blair is determined, even brazen. This is a man whose response to two years of questions over his integrity was a holiday as the house guest of Silvio Berlusconi.
Monday, September 13, 2004
Very interesting opinion piece at the Guardian, which argues that Tony Blair's continued survival as Prime Minister is an affront