When the last Conservative government sacrificed its reputation for competence, it was at least for a worthy cause. On Black Wednesday, British monetary policy was rescued from what was to become the eurozone after John Major’s government lost a shambolic battle with currency speculators. It was a day of ignominious political defeat. But on that day the economy started what has become the longest sustained expansion in history. Tony Blair is absolutely right to say he has not suffered his own Black Wednesday. The tawdry scandals which now engulf him bear no comparison with what was achieved for Britain on 16 September 1992.
The Prime Minister has instead faced a lesser enemy: the combined forces of John Prescott’s libido, Patricia Hewitt’s uselessness and Charles Clarke’s misfortune. The more reflective Cabinet members have been looking beyond the local election results and asking whether the damage Labour has suffered in recent weeks may already have become irreparable.
The mood within 10 Downing Street is ridiculously upbeat. The Prime Minister appears to be in denial, accepting that he has had a ‘bad week’ — later upgraded to nine days — but dismissing the problems as no more than a series of small irritations which will in time be forgotten. In private, he talks enthusiastically about the work he intends to do in the months and years to come. The frightening thought is that he genuinely believes this.
Meanwhile, the rest of us are witnessing the collapse of the very foundations upon which New Labour was built. First, a party elected as being demonstrably cleaner than John Major’s government is now judged as being ‘just as sleazy’ by the public. This, it should be noted, is a measured verdict that was reached long before news broke of Mr Prescott’s affair with Tracey Temple, his diary secretary. The pictures of their cavorting at a Christmas party have simply reinforced an image of sleaze already emblazoned on the public mind.
Iain Dale, the internet-dexterous founder of Politico’s Publishing, has published on his website an inventory of New Labour scandal with 94 episodes ranging from the mildly comical to the truly deplorable. This is perhaps why Labour’s sleaze ratings were virtually undented by the Prescott revelations — a critical mass of scandal has already been reached, where stories start to resemble each other.
Next to fall has been Labour’s reputation for competence. Failure to deport foreign ex-convicts is bad enough in principle, but when it emerges that one of them is wanted for the murder of PC Sharon Beshenivsky a clearer picture begins to emerge of a government that has lost all control over law and order. The story also fits snugly with an existing trend. This is the same Home Office that not so long ago was issuing work visas with such abandon that a one-legged Romanian secured entry purporting to be a roofer. Mr Clarke is not accused of soft government or draconian government, but simply of bad government. And — again — this is what the public has bitterly come to expect.
This explains why Patricia Hewitt was almost lynched by nurses last month after declaring that the NHS was enjoying its ‘best year ever’. Yet on many levels she spoke the truth. Hospital waiting lists are at their lowest since records began in 1988, the numbers of GPs are at record highs. But the public do not believe this to be true, because the perception that this is a government of bunglers is now so deeply ingrained.
Thus, the greatest irony: the problem here is one of communication, an art at which New Labour once excelled. The NHS story ought to be a good one: Mr Blair is taking on spendthrift health trusts by setting them a budget and instructing them to balance their books. The notion of fiscal responsibility is being introduced to NHS managers, many of whom have for too long short-changed their staff and patients. NHS reform bears comparison with a communist state’s transition to capitalism: the wonder is that there has not been more tumult. From an organisation with 1.3 million workers, the loss of 7,000 is hardly a crisis. Yet Labour has allowed this to be portrayed as a catastrophe.
Sleaze, incompetence and dire communication — these are the precise opposites of the very strengths which formed New Labour. The problem runs far deeper than Mr Blair, as successive opinion polls now show. Since David Cameron took over as Conservative leader, nine polls have tested voting intentions should Gordon Brown replace Mr Blair. Strikingly, each shows the Chancellor incapable of outpolling Mr Cameron and doing little better than Mr Blair. The idea that a Brown leadership will restore the party’s electoral fortunes is a fiction.
A Labour party with a will to survive would recognise and digest such research. Yet the Labour party in its current mood seeks Mr Blair’s departure regardless. Even before the local elections, signatures were being collected among Labour group chairmen in local authorities to blame Mr Blair personally for their (expected) poor showing, in the hope that he would resign forthwith. In the Commons, excitable nonsense is being spoken about rebels putting forward a stalking-horse candidate with the aim of expediting Mr Brown’s succession.
Under Clause 4b of the Labour party’s rulebook, leadership challenges can take place only at its annual conference and with the connivance of the trade unions, which — deplorably — have a collective veto over the process. Mr Brown would have no problem raising the 71 signatures required, but being crowned by the likes of the Amicus, GMB and Unison unions is exactly the image the Chancellor needs to avoid if he is to keep Middle England on side. Simply put, Labour party rules offer no method of deposing Mr Blair which Mr Brown would find acceptable.
A party once renowned for discipline is now split three ways: between those who want Mr Blair to stay for as long as possible, those who believe Mr Brown’s leadership will rescue the ship, and the fatalists — or realists — who recognise that the party’s malaise stretches beyond either man. Even Mr Brown’s followers are divided between those like Nick Brown who are delighting in the Prime Minister’s misery and wish to speed his exit, and the more thoughtful (and younger) Brownites, like Ed Miliband, who are painfully aware of damage being inflicted on the party. Unity was once the core principle of New Labour. Yet the governing party has emerged from the local elections campaign divided, embittered and mutinous.
None of this will be resolved by a Cabinet reshuffle. In its reputed £250,000 payment for Ms Temple’s diaries, the Mail on Sunday has set a handsome benchmark bounty for whoever else may be nursing secrets about government members — and the Westminster rumour mill is not short of tip-offs. Most ominously for Mr Blair, the Metropolitan Police has yet to conclude its investigation into the loans-for-peerages accusations.
All this presents an extraordinary opportunity for Mr Cameron. If he succeeds in presenting the Conservatives as competent and trustworthy, he can surge ahead of an ailing government that may be incapable of healing itself. The reshuffle is just the start of the rescue operation which confronts Mr Blair and Mr Brown. It is a mission which may well be beyond either of them.