After seven weeks of plotting, Charles Clarke could at least have delivered his punchline correctly. He declared to the BBC that as home secretary he had been ‘tough but populist, I beg your pardon, tough but not populist’. He attacked Tony Blair for losing ‘purpose and direction’ but said the Prime Minister should nonetheless stay until 2008. Each of his four interviews was primed to detonate on the same day, and each somehow seemed to misfire. Yet, for all its sloppiness, the Clarke attack has had a profound impact on No. 10.
‘The Prime Minister is running a mile’ announced his official spokesman — he referred to a charity jog but it was true more generally. No. 10 had little desire to retaliate fiercely and its only response was to describe Mr Clarke as ‘disappointed’, a word glowing with understatement. Mr Blair spoke implausibly of his ‘very great regard’ for his old colleague. The No. 10 spin machine, which turned against even Peter Mandelson when he quit the Cabinet, is sprouting nothing but olive branches this time.
Most striking has been John Reid’s Gandhi-like response to Mr Clarke’s highly personalised attack. He was the ‘populist’ in question, and stood further accused of pursuing ‘media-led’ policies, and even of incompetence. Some of Mr Reid’s best (but least printable) quotes have been in response to attacks by other ministers. But this time he too was oozing conciliation. He declared ‘the greatest respect’ for his predecessor and spoke in irenic tones about their ‘different styles’.
It would have been easy to launch an eviscerating counterattack against Mr Clarke, as some Blair sympathisers were doing independently — here is a failed home secretary, these freelancers said, who left behind what is arguably the worst-run government department outside Italy. He is rumoured to be planning a second attack, so the motive for vaporising him now is all the greater. Yet both Mr Reid and No. 10 have responded as if they were talking down a gunman. ‘You’re a great guy, Charles,’ they seem to say. ‘We like you. Just put down the weapon and walk away.’
The real worry is not Mr Clarke himself, nor what he may have to say should he get his words right next time, but the threat he personifies. Mr Blair positively revels in being attacked by Conservatives and has learnt to bat away the Chancellor’s provocations. But No. 10 has no playbook with which to fight angry Blairites and disillusioned loyalists. If more people should follow Mr Clarke — particularly ministers who are not traditionally seen to be aligned with the Chancellor — then the perception of isolation might become unsustainable. It is already taking No. 10 to the brink of surrender.
Mr Blair was right to deny he had had a ‘Geoffrey Howe moment’. In November 1990 the then Sir Geoffrey attacked Margaret Thatcher in a Commons resignation speech which had drama, eloquence and malice — all of which were entirely absent from Mr Clarke’s self-justifying moans around the studios. There is no one in the Cabinet with the stature to ‘do a Howe’ on Mr Blair, with the possible exception of the Chancellor himself. But the Prime Minister’s potential downfall lies in a series of ‘mini-Howes’ each launching attacks, as Mr Clarke has done — none of them individually sufficient to dislodge the PM but cumulatively lethal. The question No. 10 must ask, and is asking, is simple: who is next?
One man to watch is John Denham, a former Home Office minister who resigned over the war and has accrued considerable political capital as chairman of the home affairs select committee. He spent much time last week having conspiratorial cups of coffee with Mr Clarke in the House of Commons and is seen as a power broker in relations between government and the unruly Labour party. His criticism is too considered to be dismissed, and he is too single-minded to be written off as a Brownite. Should he launch a frontal attack on Mr Blair, it would certainly leave its mark.
None of the remaining Blair loyalists in the Cabinet would turn against him. Even if Tessa Jowell were a skilled assassin, she would never betray the man to whom she owes her Cabinet career. John Hutton, the estimable (but underestimated) Work and Pensions Secretary, wants nothing from Mr Brown and has told him so. There is no risk from the Scots — Alistair Darling, Des Browne and Douglas Alexander — as any mischief they engage in will instantly be interpreted as Brownite wrecking.
Jack Straw was as disloyal as he dared to be three weeks ago when he told this magazine that the Prime Minister would be gone ‘well before’ the next general election. He was summoned to No. 10 and given a stern dressing-down — he remains, after all, on the Cabinet payroll as Leader of the Commons. He has promised to behave and No. 10 accepts that he will. But there are no such certainties about the Secretary of State for Wales and Northern Ireland.
Peter Hain has been behaving rather oddly of late. He is an avowed opponent of nuclear power stations, yet last week backed Mr Brown’s call for renewing the Trident nuclear deterrent. He has helped the Chancellor on the stage at Northern Ireland, and has been praised by anonymous Brown allies in the press. He was present at the recent meeting between the Prime Minister and Welsh MPs, smiling quietly while Mr Blair was told that his resignation would be the greatest help to the elections for the Welsh Assembly.
Mr Hain has a reputation as a left-wing maverick, but not as a Brownite automaton. This places him in an ideal situation to strike next. He also has a motive, in that he believes the Prime Minister reneged on a deal to promote him in last month’s Cabinet reshuffle. His friends say he was told by Mr Blair, ‘You’ll get your move next time,’ to which he replied, ‘There won’t be a next time under you.’ We will surely hear more of this intriguing exchange.
The Brownites have done as much damage as they can afford to for now. It is attacks from notionally non-aligned ministers that may finish off Mr Blair. But the Treasury is wrong to refer to No. 10 as a ‘bunker’ — its view of the outside world is only too vivid. It can see its band of allies narrowing to an unsustainable degree, and seems to be pleading for time by renewing talk about a phased timetable for handing over power. Even this may be a decoy. At this rate, Mr Blair is more likely just to go.