At a coffee stall inside Lord’s cricket ground on Monday, two customers bumped into each other with a start. Alastair Campbell and Boris Johnson have not met since No. 10 Downing Street took this magazine to the Press Complaints Commission for exposing Tony Blair’s attempts to interfere with the Queen Mother’s lying-in-state, but that subject was not raised. Mr Johnson offered the usual icebreaker — when will Mr Blair resign? To his surprise, he was given a straight answer: ‘A year and a bit.’ It is now all but official: Mr Blair intends to leave the stage at next year’s Labour party conference.
While a good deal shorter than the ‘full third term’ fraudulently promised to the electorate last May, it remains an ambitious target. The turmoil in the Middle East has eclipsed but not ended the turmoil on the Labour benches. Gordon Brown’s lieutenants have been saying in private that they are now resisting enormous pressure to move this summer and finish off Mr Blair before the party’s annual conference in nine weeks’ time.
The Prime Minister specialises in survival, but this skill now threatens what he cherishes most — his legacy. Had he quit at the last election, the Blair years would have been remembered as a time of prosperity, blemished only by military misadventure in Iraq. Now they are stained by the loans-for-ermine scandal and by ridicule dumped on the government by the tragicomical figure of John Prescott. But another failing is emerging, and one which may yet outstrip all the others.
It is becoming increasingly apparent this week that the Blair years have been a period of jaw-dropping government incompetence, on a par with the most notorious corporate accounting scandals. When John Reid described the Immigration and Nationality Directorate as ‘inadequate in terms of its scope, information technology, leadership, management systems and processes’ he was conducting, with disgust, an audit of the Home Office. But his analysis holds good for much of the rest of Whitehall. Only now is the depth of the problem becoming clear.
Mr Reid’s outraged soundbites give us a clue to what is happening elsewhere in government. He has found, for example, that there is no central log of Britain’s 78,400 prisoners — which is partly why foreign ex-convicts manage to slip away undetected on parole. Faulty data is the currency of the Home Office, which provides plans to address problems the scale of which has often been hopelessly underestimated. But standards are little higher at the Department of Health. A report this week, with the wonderfully euphemistic subheading ‘what went less well’ describes the disaster encountered when trying to attach prices to basic hospital operations. Staggeringly, just three people were assigned to this entire process, out of a workforce of 1.3 million — and the errors were as large as they were inevitable. The entire English NHS was given a pricing system where decimal points were out of place, and hospitals feared that they would have to cancel work.
Similar horror stories can be picked up in the bars of Whitehall from an increasingly bewildered and demoralised Civil Service. The Ministry of Defence is apparently running on autopilot, with minimal leadership from Des Browne, its nominal Secretary of State. His aides have been struck by the extent to which he reads out every single word written for him in speeches, complete with grammatical mistakes.
What is remarkable is how much is coming to light about this. With the Civil Service preparing for a new Brownite regime, we are witnessing an extraordinary spectacle: the Labour government is blowing the whistle on itself. Sir Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, is preparing a ‘capability review’ into 17 government departments intended to see if the failings in the Home Office are indeed duplicated elsewhere in government. His initial findings are every bit as bleak as he feared.
The sheer amount of money earned by the public and squandered by the government promises to make a compelling theme for the Conservatives: that incompetence, rather than sleaze or spin, was the true hallmark of the Blair years. On the other hand, the same narrative will help Mr Brown to declare ‘year zero’ when he arrives — it was all Blair’s fault — presenting himself as the agent of change.
A maelstrom of blame is slowly sucking in mandarins across Whitehall. Jobs are being lost, executives sacked, new disasters exposed. The Home Office permanent secretary and the chief executive of the NHS have walked the plank, and more will follow. But for the last nine years all departments have had two leaders in common: the Prime Minister and a Chancellor who liked to be seen as the true author of domestic policy. These days, of course, Mr Brown and his henchmen are claiming no such authorship. Just as new Soviet leaders liked to denounce their predecessors — even if they had worked cheek-by-jowl with them — so we can expect Mr Brown to present himself as a champion of reform, a Whitehall radical liberated at last to sort out the government. He will take as his template the capability review that Mr Blair himself commissioned from Sir Gus.
The Prime Minister now risks a deeply ignominious exit. The spectacular arrest of Lord Levy last week demonstrated that the Metropolitan Police is taking the loans-for-honours case very seriously: this is much more than a formality. ‘They won’t get enough to prosecute, but they may find both us and the Tories guilty of a technical infringement,’ one Blairite admits. So why hang on? Because, says the same Blairite, the longer the PM stays put, the better the chances of someone — perhaps Mr Reid — mounting a successful challenge to the Chancellor. It is desperate stuff.
Last month a new portrait of Mr Blair was placed in Portcullis House beneath that of Diane Abbott. It is a striking image of an almost hunted man, his face gripped with anxiety, lips pursed, eyes staring nervously to the right. It cuts a stark contrast with the official Blair portrait, hanging a few yards away, of a resolute leader with steel in his eyes who had just won the 2001 election.
The longer Mr Blair clings to power, the more resonant the new image becomes. The man who achieved so much for Labour may now be remembered for collapsing government departments, the indigence of his party, and a Congressional Medal lying uncollected in Washington. As Mr Blair flies off for his summer holiday, he knows he might still last as long as Mr Campbell claimed. The question is whether the cost to his reputation is worth paying.